Rolling out Lumkani Fire Device: Preventing Fires, Upgrading Communities

By 7th Mar 2015 CORC, FEDUP, ISN, News

By Yolande Hendler (on behalf of CORC)

The last two months bear witness to the devastation fires can cause. At the height of South Africa’s hottest months, fires pose a continuous threat, often breaking out in informal areas, wiping out entire segments of informal settlements, despite the response of fire departments.

Fire in Langrug, Stellenbosch Municipality, February 2014

Fire in Langrug, Stellenbosch Municipality, February 2014

A proactive response to fire?

In January and February 2015, the Alliance was alerted to two fires in ISN/FEDUP settlements alone, with several more breaking out in the City of Cape Town and Stellenbosch Municipality such as in Langrug informal settlement where an estimated 70 structures were razed to the ground. In 2014 the City of Cape Town’s Human Settlements directorate spent R6.5 million on fire aid by issuing 1 186 enhanced emergency kits to victims of 254 separate fires in a period of two months.

How can the response to informal settlement fires become less reactive and more proactive and preventative? Since early 2014 the SA SDI Alliance has partnered with Lumkani, a social enterprise that has designed and co-developed an early warning fire detection device with ISN and FEDUP affiliated communities in Cape Town.

UT Gardens leadership with Lumkani with installed device on wall

UT Gardens leadership with Lumkani with installed device on wall

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Co-developing the Lumkani device

The Lumkani device uses heat detection technology to sense for fires. It accurately measures the incidence of harmful fires alerting the family inside a shack of the danger. Each device is networked to surrounding devices within a 100m radius. In the event of a fire the detecting device sends a signal to surrounding devices within this range. A solid beep means that the device has detected a fire in your own home while a broken beep indicates that the fire is in the nearby surrounding. A wave of sound creates a community-wide alert and response to danger. This buys time for the community to become proactive in rapidly spreading fire risk situations. Through deep engagement with UT Gardens community leadership, the Lumkani team co-developed the device to optimally suit the informal settlement context. Read more about the device and the co-design process here.

The Lumkani device

The Lumkani device


Co-developing the device – workshop in UT Gardens ahead of rollout and installation.


Co-developing the device – workshop in UT Gardens ahead of rollout and installation.

Roll-out and Community Contributions: “We are proud of our device”

In November and December 2015 the first Lumkani devices were rolled out in UT Gardens and Siyahlala’s D-section. Currently ISN and FEDUP community leaders have rolled out 650 devices.

On the first day of distribution and roll-out, community leaders and members of the Lumkani team installed about 20 manufactured devices in the homes of community leaders and general community members. The devices need to be installed 1m away from the cooking area, to avoid triggering a false alarm in the event of close proximity to a heat source. The device is therefore positioned as high as possible while still in reachable distance in order to test or silence the alarm.

As the first batch was installed the community leadership collected a 20% contribution of the overall cost of the devices from community members through door-to-door visits. Contributions are an integral part of the Alliance approach of “Vuku’zenzele” – “Wake up and do it for yourself”.

Nokokheli Ncambele, Western Cape ISN co-ordinator explains,

“[Contributions are important because we want] communities to find solutions to their own problems. If a community contributes, they show that they are interested. With our contributions, we leverage more funds”

Communities that expressed interest in the device during initial mobilisation could apply to the Alliance’s Community Upgrading Finance Facility (CUFF) for co-funding, whereby CUFF covered 80% and community members contributed 20% (i.e R20) of the total cost.

Emily Vining, who facilitates Lumkani’s community interaction, reflects on the significance of community contributions,

“It is our hope that the act of purchasing the device is an exercise of freedom whereby people can increase their own safety and security and that of their community through their own agency and choice. Communities don’t have to wait for external actors to bring about change. They can do it for themselves”

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UT Gardens community leader, Vuyani Ntontela and Lumkani engineer Frank Petousis install device

Lumkani with Nozuko

Siyahlala’s FEDUP co-ordinator, Nozuko Fulani, with Lumkani’s Emily Vining & Frank Petousis

Fire prevention record so far

So far the system has prevented the spread of two fires in UT Gardens. The first (9 Dec 2014) occurred in the late morning when a light breeze blew some embers from a cooking fire into the neighbouring home. Although the homeowner was away, the Lumkani device she had installed triggered her neighbours devices who ran outside their homes to see where the danger had come from. The community managed to keep the fire contained with buckets while one community member used the toll-free emergency number 112 to call the fire department. The fire had burnt the community member’s home to the ground but no other structures where affected. The community attributed this to the early alert the Lumkani system provided.

The second incident occurred in the early morning hours of 22 Dec 2014 when UT and Lumkani leadership were alerted by SMS text messages that the system had triggered. Later that day it emerged that some men had left their pot unattended while making food. Their Lumkani device rang when the pot caught fire alerting them to the danger. They quickly put out the fire and shared the story with UT Gardens community leader, Thamara Hela, as they were very impressed with the functionality of the device.


UT Gardens community leader, Thamara Hela, with Emily Vining

A broader approach to Upgrading

The Alliance’s partnership with Lumkani is an example of what a proactive community intervention can look like. Its significance lies in the co-design and co-development of the Lumkani device – between community members and Lumkani’s technical team. What sets the Lumkani device apart is the community’s involvement in developing its own technical intervention. Through negotiating additional funds through their own contributions the community expressed its interest in taking the device on as its own – “Vuku’zenzele”.

The partnership is also an example of a broader approach to upgrading, one that reaches beyond housing and basic services. When upgrading includes co-design and relevant co-intervention, communities move from being receptors to actors, taking more control of the development process itself. 

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