Lumkani is a social enterprise that seeks to address the challenge of fires in urban informal settlements in South Africa and across the globe.

The incredible company has developed an early-warning system to reduce the damage and destruction caused by the spread of shack/slum fires in urban informal settlements

Many cooking, lighting and heating methods used by people living in informal settlements produce smoke. For this reason Lumkani detectors use rate-of-rise of temperature technology to accurately measure the incidence of dangerous fires and limit the occurrence of false alarms.

Density is a challenge all urban informal settlements share and is a major risk factor that enables the rapid spread of fires. In order to provide sufficient early-warning, a communal alert is required. The detectors are networked within a 60-metre radius so that in the event of a fire all devices in this range will ring together, enabling a community-wide response to the danger.

This buys time for communities to become proactive in rapidly spreading fire risk situations.

One day in late 2012, an electrical engineering professor named Samuel Ginsberg had enough. He asked his students at the University of Cape Town to come up with a low cost alarm system for shack dwellers.

François Patousis took up the challenge.

Patousis says that smoke alarms, which most Americans have in their homes, are too sensitive for shacks.

“Ceilings are too low,” he says, “and shack dwellers use open flames for cooking, heating and lighting.”

So Patousis developed a small device that would sense a rapid rise in heat, not smoke — which is a good indicator of a fire.

The alarm would have remained a school project, if not for a terrible fire in 2013 in Cape Town’s largest slum that left 6,000 people homeless on New Year’s Day.

Patousis says his school friend, Emily Vining, came to him sobbing when she heard about the fire and urged him to do something.

“[She told me] ‘You’ve started something. Let’s take this forward and make it something real.’”

The two of them formed a company, which they later named Lumkani (“beware” in Xhosa).


Patousis says once they started testing the alarm, they realized the prototype only went so far.

“The alarm was fine at alerting the person inside of their home,” he says. “But it actually needs to alert more than just the person living there,” because fire spreads so quickly.

So he installed a chip inside the device that receives and transmits a radio signal. And it’s wirelessly networked to all the other Lumkani boxes in the area.

When a Lumkani alarm detects a fire, it beeps for 20 seconds, and then triggers all the alarms within a 200-foot radius. A central device is also triggered that sends text messages to residents and GPS coordinates to the fire department.

“Basically that means you can create a community wide alert,” Patousis says. “Every single home that has a fire detector can know there’s a fire within my neighborhood.”

Lumkani aims to create social impact by increasing the safety and security of people living in informal settlements with technology-based early-warning systems.

“We have taken our system even further. We have developed and rolled out smart centralised devices, which gather information about the detector mesh network.”

These devices constantly check the health of the system and in the event of fire, store GPS coordinates and simultaneously send text-message warnings to members of the affected community. Their next phase is to send, in real-time, the coordinates of fires to the municipality’s emergency response personnel.

Since November 2014, Lumkani has distributed detectors to over 7000 households in total.

They are already detecting fires and creating the value they envisioned, all the while collecting insightful data around the technology, the fire challenge and the human experience.

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Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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