On New Year’s Day 2013, a huge fire ripped through the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town, South Africa, destroying hundreds of homes and leaving several people dead. It was an horrific accident–but also nothing unusual. Around the world, plenty of fires take hold in poor, densely populated places every year, because people living there still cook with open flames.
It was this danger that a group of local students looked to address with a low-cost fire detection device called Lumkani (previously known as Khusela). Conceived as a university project but now set for commercial launch, the blue box registers the rate at which heat rises in a shack, indicating when there might be a fire risk. It then connects with nearby, similar devices, setting off a chain of alarms, so neighbors can intervene.
“The critical challenge is inebriation. People have been cooking, and they fall asleep and don’t wake up when there’s a fire,” says David Gluckman, one of the team members.
Conventional smoke alarms aren’t suitable for people cooking on sooty fires. Moreover, they tend to be unreliable: We all know how the the fire alarm can go off when all we’ve done is burn some toast. Lumkani instead senses for the rate at which temperature changes. It then transmits a signal to nearby devices, which sets off a slightly different-sounding alarm. The idea is to create a network of devices, so communities can work together to snuff out a threat.
Starting in October, the graduates plan to sell the device for 90 Rand (about $8.30). “The trick with this kind of disaster is early warning. The earlier people know, the more lives are saved and the less stuff is destroyed,” Gluckman says. “There are tons of cases where neighbors tried to get to a fire but arrived too late. If it’s too late for the neighbor, it’s probably too late for the person inside as well.”
Using simple radio frequency technology, the devices work at a range of 20 meters (66 feet) and automatically link in series, creating a wider safety zone. “It offers both personal and community protection,” Gluckman says. “Our strategy is to find ways to subsidize the device through corporate and public partnerships, so we can drive the price further down.”
Lumkani, which won the People’s Award at this year’s Global Social Venture Competition, is collaborating with a local group called CORC. It has already pre-sold its first 2,000 units in the Cape Town area, and after South Africa, it hopes to expand elsewhere. It may need to bring the price down, but the idea sounds promising.