Impact Journalism Day 2016

Confronting a Burning Issue in South Africa

When a fire hits a slum area, the effect can be instantly devastating. A suitably alarmed Cape Town social enterprise group believes it has found the solution.

By distributing their technology-based early-warning device; a simple blue box equipped with two screws for mounting, a button and a flashing light, Lumkani increases security for those living in the community, supplying them with a bit more peace of mind.
Lumkani

On January 1, 2013, a devastating fire swept in the New Year for people living in Khayelitsha, about 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) southeast of Cape Town. Three separate fires engulfed nearly 1,000 shacks in the township, with strong winds spreading flames faster than members of the community could react.

“That was the impetus to start developing the technology and getting everything together,” says David Gluckman, director of a social enterprise group called Lumkani.

The team of six young social entrepreneurs aims to put an end to the slum fires that routinely destroy the property and lives of individuals living in South Africa’s informal settlements.

By distributing their technology-based early-warning device – a simple blue box equipped with two screws for mounting, a button and flashing light – the Cape Town-based Lumkani increases security for those living in the township community, providing them with a little more peace of mind.

According to Yolande Hendler, who works in the research and documentation department for the South African Slum Dwellers International Alliance, there are some 2,700 informal settlements in South Africa, with 11 percent of South Africans living in them.

The organization, which has a partnership with Lumkani, aims to strengthen these communities through an approach which recognizes that the residents are better suited than external actors to plan and implement solutions to challenges such as shack fires.

Hendler believes the Lumkani device is unique because it promotes the community’s involvement in developing its own technical intervention, allowing community members to participate in improving their own living conditions.

Continuous innovation

Because most cooking techniques in these environments require open flames and produce a hazardous amount of smoke, traditional smoke detectors prove inappropriate and ineffective. Candles, contained fires in tin drums, paraffin stoves and makeshift electricity connections also contribute to an increased fire risk. And even the materials used to construct shacks – wood, cardboard, plastic – are highly flammable.

In response to these obstacles, the Lumkani detector implements a “rate-of-rise” temperature measurement to detect the probability of dangerous fires, while limiting the occurrence of false alarms that will send the community into crisis mode for no reason.

“The value of partnering with the Lumkani team was Lumkani’s willingness to develop the device through a deep-participatory approach that values horizontal learning,” says Hendler. “This means inclusive design solutions and continuous innovation driven by testing and feedback.”

The SDI Alliance partnership with Lumkani is an example of what a proactive community intervention can achieve. The device has been crucial for sparing households from devastation.

“We have a number of stories from Khayelitsha where the critical early warning our device provides has mitigated the spread of fire completely in some cases,” says Gluckman. “We’ve actually stopped fires in their tracks.”

Stopping such disasters at an early stage makes all the difference in places like Khayelitsha, where population density poses major obstacles to containing the far-reaching impacts of a fire. Hundreds of families could be affected in the blink of an eye.

For this reason, all Lumkani detectors in households within a 60-meter radius are synced together, so that when one device signals an alarm, the network of devices will warn the neighbors. This gives community members more reaction time to quell the threat of fire before it becomes too dangerous.

Preventing 21,000 fires daily

“There are so many more alerts that we get before incidents become something to talk about, or before they turn into any kind of a danger,” says Gluckman. “We don’t get to hear the narrative around those stories, but they’re happening all the time.”

By Gluckman’s reckoning, since some 7,000 households are equipped with the heat-detecting device and, on average, households use heat to prepare two or three meals a day, Lumkani prevents about 21,000 possible incidences of fire a day.

The Lumkani team has significant plans for enhancing its brand in the immediate future that goes beyond increasing the number of devices it distributes. In addition to developing a response team to extinguish the fires detected by the device, Lumkani is looking to hire people from the communities they are serving to be the first responders and to install devices in homes, generating job opportunities.

It is also working on creating an insurance program so that in the event of fire, device holders could receive a payout for damages as well as assistance in then returning to work and school.

“I don’t think people see social challenges in South Africa as any type of business opportunity,” says Gluckman. “We see an opportunity here to challenge an issue that is totally avoidable.”

This article first appeared in South African weekly City Press.