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Lumkani – SA start-up combatting shack fires

Lumkani – SA start-up combatting shack fires

South African start-up, Lumkani, has installed its early warning fire detection system in 20 000 homes across South Africa, taking the number of homes safer from high fire risk in several of the country’s informal settlements to 40 000.

According to Stats SA’s 2018 general household survey, 17.9% of South Africans in metropolitan areas live in informal dwellings and there are 2.1 million shacks in SA. The Institute for Race Relations has also found that there were 25 000 shack fires between 2010 and 2013.

The project was funded by the GSMA Mobile for Development Programme, via the Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation Fund, to create resilience in the most vulnerable communities of South Africa.

Within the first six months of operation, the system has already reduced the spread of fire in 16 incidents. Lumkani’s system creates a community-wide alert in the early phases of a fire. The fire alarm in every home within 60m of the fire rings, and text messages are sent to all residents, so even those at work or elsewhere can respond.

“Lumkani has always had the dream of making communities more resilient to the devastation of shack fires. Having the opportunity to cover an additional 20,000 South African homes with our early warning system has been a big step towards realising this,” says Francois Petousis, Director of Humanitarian Projects at Lumkani. “Every week we hear stories of people who have heard our fire alarms ringing in a neighbourhood, or have received our SMS saying that their house is on fire which has helped them to race home to put out a small fire before it caused any damage. That is huge motivation for us to reach even more homes across our country.”

One such story is that of Nomfusi, who had a Lumkani fire detector installed in her home on the 9th of November 2018 in the Taiwan Informal Settlement, in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Her account of the fire that took place on the 7th of February 2019 is a terrifying one: “The Lumkani device actually woke me and I saw the fire. I got my children and we escaped out of a small window. If it wasn’t for the Lumkani device which woke me up, I would have lost my life.” Fortunately, Nomfusi survived with only minor burns to her legs.

Beyond creating early warning technology, Lumkani has worked together with Hollard to develop a fire cover product that allows people to insure their informal home and all its contents against fire, something which previously did not exist in South Africa. Lumkani captures geo-location information on its app to create ‘addresses’ for informal homes, and with that, enable these properties to be insured against fire. Lumkani launched this product in September 2016.

Babalwa, another one of the recipients of Lumkani’s system, had a fire detector installed in her home on the 15th of November 2018. On the 30th of that month, she bought Lumkani fire cover to protect her home. “A few months later, I was visiting a friend of mine and then suddenly, I received an SMS from Lumkani that my house was burning. So, I called my family members who live near me to quickly go save my things.”

She still does not know how the fire started, but because of the Lumkani alert, her family managed to save some of her belongings, and with the help of her neighbours, they put out the fire. Babalwa was then able to claim for what she lost in the fire and received a pay-out for her couch, clothing and Tupperware which had been damaged in the blaze.

“This is what Lumkani exists to do. Mobile-enabled early warning technology mitigated the spread of fire in Babalwa’s home, reducing the damage it caused, and whatever was lost was reclaimed through Lumkani’s fire cover product. This provides real protection to those who traditionally have had none,” shares Petousis.

He concludes: “Through our early warning systems in many of South Africa’s highest fire-risk areas, we have seen first-hand the impact that this simple intervention has had in preventing devastation amongst the most vulnerable communities in our country.”

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Clare Petra Matthes

Hi, I'm Clare and I am a freelance writer and Tech journalist as well as the owner and founder of where I review tech devices and also cover emerging technology news. Outside of I write for a number of publications and have regular tech slots on chaiFM radio station and eNCA's Tech Matters national breakfast TV news show.

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