Start-up snapshot: Early-warning system to prevent devastating shack fires

Start-up: Lumkani, South Africa

Lumkani's fire detection device.

Lumkani’s fire detection device.

In South Africa and across the continent, shack fires in informal settlements are a regular occurrence and result in the devastating loss of property and often lives. This is a problem Cape Town-based start-up Lumkani hopes to solve.

An integrated early-warning system using low-cost technology has been developed to detect these fires to which low-income earners are particularly vulnerable. Most smoke detecting technologies are expensive and highly sensitive to the slightest presence of smoke, which does not work in informal settlements where smoke is caused by many cooking, lighting and heating methods. Lumkani’s device, made specifically for informal settlements, detects a rapid rise in temperature, rather than smoke.

The start-up was founded by a University of Cape Town student, Francois Petousis, and a senior lecturer Samuel Ginsberg. It recently won first prize at the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) start-up competition at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Marrakech.

David Gluckman, Lumkani’s director, answers How we made it in Africa’s questions.  

1. How did you finance your start-up?

We received funding from the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA).

2. If you were given US$1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?

It would go towards getting a distribution network down able to sustain the scale at which Lumkani would grow, not only across South Africa but all Africa and beyond. Distribution is very important for what we do, as well as capacitating people on the ground for both sale and distribution of the device.

And of course we would invest in further research and development to further [enhance] our technology.

3. What risks does your business face?

There is always the risk of whether your sales can sustain your organisation, and also the rate at which sales need to grow to make the organisation sustainable.

4. Describe your most exciting moment.

We received an alert about a week after the system was fully installed that there was a fire in a community… A lady was in hospital giving birth to her first child, and her home was on fire because of a neighbour’s risky cooking endeavour. We received the alert and the community – through the system’s network – heard the alert, went to the source, and were able to actually address the fire before it jumped to the next shack. The entire system worked in the way we had envisioned, and that was exciting to see.

5. What has been the biggest lesson learnt with Lumkani?

Probably the biggest lesson that we have learnt is that you need to under-promise and over-deliver. And when dealing with technology that is brilliant but so new, and you don’t really know the environment in which you are operating, you need to take time. And you need to understand who your suppliers are and if they are moving at the same pace as you.

So that’s a lesson we had to learn. We are potentially dealing with, in some cases, old-school suppliers who may [delay] the development phase because they are simply not as hungry and efficient as we are.