Posted on Innovate Development.
South Africa has 1.9 million people living in informal settlements, a direct result of apartheid. In these high population density communities, it is not uncommon for massive shack fires to erupt, spreading quickly and resulting in death and mass displacement.1 Accelerated urbanization, highly combustible building materials and unstable structures have made these townships increasingly susceptible to fire hazards. For communities that had little to begin with, these fires have a huge impact on cycles of poverty.2
Lumkani, a South African based start-up, emerged in response to these fires and the limitations of Western-developed smoke detectors. Their solution is a device that both detects fires and alerts nearby residents. In the event of a fire, an alarm is triggered to alert the family. If the fire is not addressed in 20 seconds, it communicates through radio frequency transmissions with all devices in a 60 metre radius, setting off heat detectors to elicit a community-wide mobilization. It also sends text messages to community members with the location of the fire. The next step, which is currently in development, is for real-time GPS coordinates to be sent to municipal emergency response personnel.3
The technology has been developed according to the region’s specificities. Instead of detecting smoke – which is a common by-product of cooking, lighting and heating in these settlements – it detects a sudden rise in temperature, reducing the frequency of false alarms. In comparative tests, the device “fared better at early-warning detection of dangerous fires than smoke detectors.”4 It has already been put to the test in several fires, initiating community-led bucket water-chains to extinguish the blazes. The innovation is a move away from adapting Western technologies, and towards the creation of inventions that are specifically for the African continent.
The device itself is a palm-size teal box, made of heat-resistant plastic and operating off an AA battery.5 It costs about 7USD (R85), although subsidies are available to reduce the cost. A local branch of Shack Dwellers International subsidizes the cost to $2.6 1200 devices have already been sold and distributed in South Africa, and their next step is seeking funding to scale their business and develop their market outside of the country.7
The research for the device, which originated as an honours thesis project by co-founder Francois Petousis, was accelerated in 2013 when a massive fire left 5000 people homeless in Khayelitsha, Western Cape. Shack fires account for over a quarter of all fires in South Africa, and take more live than all combined. From 2000 to 2010, 240,000 people were displaced by fires, and 70,000 homes destroyed.8
“There are fires here all the time, it’s a real problem,” says Emily Vining, the organization’s community relations director. “I’m very aware of my privilege, living in SA as a white female… and it just doesn’t feel right to not want to try in some way to contribute to some kind of social change.”9 The intent of the devices goes beyond reducing the destruction of fires to be a step towards increasing the overall safety, financial security and well-being of those who live in informal settlements.
Lumkani is far from short on awards and recognition. They were one of 10 finalists for the 2015 Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), an initiative of the African Innovation Fund that celebrates African ingenuity. The intent of the award is to honour, encourage and promote innovative achievement, creating an ecosystem that allows for the elimination of “the old idea that everything from overseas is better.”10 A current crowdsourcing campaign that seeks to provide 3000 homes with fire detectors is over a quarter funded, and they recently won the South African sector of Chivas Regal’s The Venture competition, earning them 50,000USD and a spot in the global competition.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0kNwAMuBvg ↩
- http://betterlivingchallenge.co.za/finalists-khusela/ ↩
- http://innovationprizeforafrica.org/2015-finalists/ ↩
- http://innovationbridge.org.za/lumkani-fire-detection/ ↩
- http://www.bdlive.co.za/opinion/columnists/2015/02/04/shack-fire-warning-system-now-a-hot-favourite-for-award ↩
- http://www.takepart.com/article/2015/01/21/heat-detector-lumkani-south-africa ↩
- https://www.theventure.com/global/en/finalists/lumkani ↩
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=75&v=9etXXrTgGe8 ↩
- https://vimeo.com/116857795 ↩
- http://www.scidev.net/global/innovation/scidev-net-at-large/africa-innovation-prize.html ↩