• Low-tech alerts defend townships from fire trap

    Imogen Mathers

Five people were killed and thousands lost their homes in a fire that tore through Khayelitsha, a township home to around a million people on the fringes of Cape Town, South Africa, on New Year’s Day 2013. Such fires are common in South Africa’s informal settlements, as they are in so many big cities across the world.
Houses are built cheek-by-jowl from reclaimed, easily flammable materials. This creates the perfect conditions for fires to spread. And the use of open fires for cooking and kerosene for lighting mean the source is never far.
When fires break out, emergency services have difficulty locating and reaching houses: few appear on official maps and roads are often impassable where they exist at all. The impact can be devastating — homes and livelihoods destroyed, people displaced and families unable to afford to rebuild homes.
After the 2013 fire, a group of Cape Town students set out to design a fire alarm system for townships. Using a ‘mesh network’ of radio and cellular alarms, the resulting Lumkani system identifies and alerts people to dangerous fires, at a fraction of the cost of smoke detectors.
Fire detectors are now in place in 3000 homes across the Western Cape. “This is a social, cultural and psychological as well as a technological intervention,” James Boonzaier, Lumkani design engineer told SciDev.Net in a recent audio interview. The goal is to enable local people to defend their lives and livelihoods from fire.
The Lumkani team hope they can expand the low-cost system for use in informal settlements across Africa, where 200 million people — or 60 per cent of the urban population — live in slums, the highest rate in the world.