The Roof Isn’t on Fire—and This Little Blue Box Is the Reason Why

Hint: It's not a smoke detector.

(Photo: Courtesy

Jan 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca L. Weber covers social justice, the arts, the environment, and more for The New York Times, CNN, Dwell, and many others. She lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

On New Year’s Day in 2013, a man preparing food at home in Cape Town, South Africa, fell asleep. The resulting fire was “like a devil,” said Wilfred Solomons-Johannes, acting head of the city’s Disaster Operations Centre. “It just swept through.” Thousands of people in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha lost their modest homes and all their possessions.

The tragedy prompted South African engineer Francois Petousis to pursue an idea he had originally conceived for a student engineering project: a low-cost, early-warning heat-detection device.

Alongside a group of cofounders, Petousis launched the social enterprise Lumkani, which means “beware” in Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa. In the basic homes it’s designed for—often shacks built from corrugated tin, with bricks to secure rooftops—families typically rely on candles, open fires, and paraffin stoves, which can explode when overheated.

“Smoke detectors are too risky,” said Lumkani cofounder Emily Vining, who explained that homes are naturally so smoky already that massive false alarms could ensue, especially in a networked system.

Lumkani, on the other hand, is a palm-size, teal-colored box that detects heat and triggers a loud, long beep as a warning sound. The signal then transmits to nearby devices, setting them off from one home to the next—faster than a fire—and alerting residents to the danger at hand.

Much of Khayelitsha, Cape Town, is electrified—light bulbs and two-plate burners help reduce the number of fires—but fairly often, access to the grid is limited and of the do-it-yourself variety, with spaghetti wires dangling in homes. By summertime each year, the conditions for the perfect fire emerge: hot, dry weather; strong winds; and neighborhood holiday celebrations. Locals are known to call this combination “windy night insomnia,” or when you can’t sleep owing to fear of fire. Flimsy, drafty homes stand close to one another, and narrow streets and a lack of fire hydrants compound the problem, making it difficult for emergency vehicles to get where they need to go.

Priced under $8 per unit—although currently subsidized by a local branch of Shack Dwellers International for about $2—and running on a single AA battery, Lumkani is a simple upgrade residents can easily embrace. That is crucial, because according to Vining, users only benefit if the networked device is used as a community product, something she calls the “ecosystem of risk reduction.”

So far, 400 of 2,000 prototype Lumkani units have been distributed in the region, and the new system has already been put to the test. One windy night last December, embers blew into a shack. The subsequent alarm woke sleeping residents, and neighbors were able to put out the fire by pitching in with buckets of water.

Lumkani has big goals for 2015. It plans to expand in Cape Town—also adding a feature that enables the mother device in each area to directly contact emergency services—and then into other African countries and India, leveraging local knowledge along the way to refine and further develop the product.

It is also not running short of recognition. Awards include one in the “Comfortable Home” category in Cape Town’s Better Living Challenge; first prize for a start-up at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Marrakech, Morocco; and a Flash Grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation. Last year, Lumkani also won the People’s Choice Award at the Global Social Venture Competition in Berkeley, California, under its original business name, Khusela.

Part of Lumkani’s appeal lies in nobody else having offered an effective solution to this common problem. “It’s a global issue,” said Vining. “We have no competition.”