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Lumkani: a simple, tech-based solution to a global problem

Tuesday, 23 June 2015   (0 Comments)
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Why: Millions of people live in high density informal settlements across South Africa, in dwellings constructed with flammable materials, and situated very close together. In these conditions, fires can spread within minutes, causing people to lose their possessions and tragically lose their lives.

What: The designers wanted to find a new way to alert residents to the presence of fire sooner and minimise the loss of property and lives. A battery-operated unit – called Lumkani – networked with other units to create a mesh of an early-warning fire alert system.

How: The Lumkani device detects the presence of fire through a rate of change of temperature, rather than the presence of smoke. If the unit is not muted by the occupants, a signal is sent to neighbouring units in a 60m radius. The units then emit an alarm to indicate the presence of a fire within that radius.

On New Year’s Day in 2013 a fire in Khayelitsha destroyed 5 000 homes, and took the lives of five people. That day was the turning point for many whose homes went up in flames, but also for a small group of University of Cape Town (UCT) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) students and lecturers.

Fires in informal settlements happen more often than is reported in the media. They start and spread quickly, causing extensive damage to possessions, property and people. Moved by the news reports about fires in South Africa, senior engineering UCT lecturer Samuel Ginsberg set a challenge for students: find a technical solution that would cost less than a dollar to produce, to detect fires more effectively in high density areas. Francois Petousis, who was doing his Honours degree in Mechatronics engineering at the time, responded with a thesis showing it was theoretically possible to develop an affordable fire detector that would be more effective than others on the market.

The solution, suggested Francois, was not in traditional smoke detection. Informal settlements are naturally smoky areas, with many people using fire for cooking, lighting and heating. This means that smoke detectors are ineffective. Instead, Francois proposed that it would be more effective to detect the rate of rising temperature, which would indicate the presence of fire.

Francois and Samuel were soon joined by Max Basler, a CPUT industrial design student, and Emily Vining, who was studying social sciences at UCT. Together they designed the first iteration of a small device now known as Lumkani.

When the units detect fire, an alarm sounds to alert the occupants that there is danger. The units are also networked with others in a 60 metre radius. When fire is detected in one home the unit alerts neighbours within that radius. A text message is also sent to the community leaders.

Ask the audience

Ultimately, the Lumkani team wants people to be able to buy safety products when they want them, rather than relying on others for their safety. To encourage this, it was important to understand what the end user needed.

After months of being in communities, Lumkani performed a critical listening exercise called Appreciative Inquiry to see if they were living up to and remaining relevant to their customers’ needs. Listening intently to their end users further shaped their understanding of the needs and experiences of their customers.

By listening to the community, the team identified additional opportunities, marrying the product with value-added service. Through these relationships, Lumkani has been able to gather valuable information, not only about product usage, but also about fire patterns in general.

On 9 December 2014, two weeks after a pilot installation, a fire started in the area. The networked alarm went off, alerting residents, and the fire was extinguished. While one family lost their home, the community confirmed that without the system, the fire would have spread creating further damage in its wake.

Lumkani has won a number of competitions, including the Better Living Challenge in 2014, and has recently been announced as a finalist in the globally prestigious Index Awards 2015. They are currently finalists in the Chivas Regal The Venture campaign, which is supported by an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign. Voting in The Venture closed on 14 June, but you can still support the Indiegogo campaign here. The campaign aims to raise enough money to fund 3 000 Lumkani devices to be installed in homes in informal settlements across South Africa.

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