Lumkani: The little blue box that can save lives in slums

Story highlights

  • Lumkani is networked heat detector designed to increase fire safety
  • Project aims to reduce fire deaths and damage in slums
  • Lumkani creators hope technology can be used worldwide

(CNN)On the first day of January 2013, as people around the world celebrated the New Year, a huge fire tore through one of South Africa's largest slums.

Sparked by a cooking flame, the blaze in Khayelitsha burned down 800 shacks, leaving at least 4,000 people homeless. Local media reported that up to five people lost their lives.
    The incident is not unique -- 717 fires were recorded in Cape Town's informal settlements between November 2015 and April 2016, according to local government figures, killing 32 people and damaging nearly 4,000 homes.
    Lumkani co-founders Samuel Ginsberg, Francois Petousis, Paul Mesarcik, Emily Vining, Max Basler and David Gluckman.
    With the the UN estimating that roughly 1 billion people live in slums or sub-standard housing globally, the issue extends far beyond the eastern Cape.

    'Be careful'

    Responding to a brief from his professor, Cape Town University electrical engineering student Francois Petousis was determined to tackle this problem.
    Together with five co-founders, his solution was Lumkani --"the world's first networked heat-detector designed specifically for a slum environment." The word means "be careful" in Xhosa, the language of South Africa's second largest ethnic group.
    In a setting where open flames are used daily to cook, heat and light homes, an ordinary smoke alarm would go off constantly, leading people to yank out the batteries and render the device pointless.
    Instead, Petousis engineered a heat detector that measures the rate of temperature rise. Cooking raises the temperature of a home in minutes, whereas a dangerous fire heats the air in seconds, prompting the alarm to sound.

    Text message warnings

    Lumkani devices are networked to each other using radio frequency, the same technology used in garage remotes. When a fire is detected, the alarm sounds in all homes within a 40 meter radius, using a different tone to signify to users when the blaze is in a separate dwelling.
    In settlements like Khayelitsha, where over 390,000 people are densely packed into a 14-square-mile space, a blaze can scorch whole blocks within minutes. Fire is definitely your neighbor's business.
    "The cooking fires and heating are so high risk, with homes built so closely together, that shack fires begin and spread very quickly," said Lumkani co-founder and managing director David Gluckman.
    "Within an instant, everything you've accumulated on earth is literally up in smoke."
    The network is controlled by a central "smart" device that when triggered, locates the GPS coordinates of the blaze and sends a text message around the neighborhood asking if people see a fire. Only when someone responds 'Yes' are the emergency services called.
    "You've got to be really careful that you're not annoying people and alerting people when you shouldn't be," said Gluckman.
    "That's the major innovation - we don't trigger when people are cooking because the device is much more sensitive."

    Community response

    Since founding the start-up in November 2014, Lumkani has distributed 7,000 devices to informal homes across South Africa, starting in Khayelitsha.
    Within two weeks of installing the devices there, Gluckman says it prevented two significant fires from spreading.
    In the time since, he adds that the start-up has prevented ten such fires from escalating. With plans to distribute further in Africa and Southeast Asia, he hopes to avert many more.
    Funded through a government innovation agency and a successful crowdsourcing campaign, the start-up has also won several awards and grants, including best start-up in 2014's Global Innovation through Science & Technology competition.
    Last year, it was chosen by the International Red Cross as a provider for its Fire Sensors initiative, a project that has distributed 900 of the devices along with extensive market research.
    Julie Arrighi, Innovation Advisor at the American Red Cross, said that using networked heat sensors like Lumkani is crucial to mitigating the growing risk of slum fires around the world.
    "Due to rapid and unplanned urbanization, the number [of people living in informal settlements] is estimated to double in the next fifteen years,"Arrighi said. "Fire risks in these areas are large, but often unrecorded."
    The charity heavily subsidized the devices, selling them for a small commission fee for the residents installing them -- an approach they believe is more sustainable than giving them away for free.
    But with the devices costing just $15 each, Lumkani also sells to individual users, smaller NGOs and local government bodies.

    Low income, not no income

    Cape Town's Mayoral Committee member for Safety & Security, Alderman JP Smith, told CNN that although the municipality does "experiment each year with a number of engineering solutions", its funding priority is getting people out of informal settlements, rather than trying to improve them.
    "You can't spend endless money on making people's lives more tolerable, you have to migrate them to proper formal housing, which removes much of the crisis," said Smith.
    He highlighted that a separate city hall initiative has reduced the death rate of slum fires from 7.9 per 100,000 people in 2005 to 3.6 per 100,000 in 2015.
    But until formal housing can be provided, what about residents whose homes and worldly possessions could potentially be at risk?
    "People don't necessarily see under-served markets as opportunities, they see them as something that needs to be dealt with on a governmental level," Gluckman countered.
    "Many billions, even trillions of dollars flow through informal settlements globally each year. It's 100% not a no income environment, it's just a low income environment. It's a distinction people need to make."