Impact Beyond Innovation is an article series that features startups from Africa putting social good at the forefront of their business models.
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In 2013, the thesis research of Lumkani co-founder Francois Petousis was accelerated because of a massive fire in the BM section of Khayelitsha that left over 4 000 people homeless.
Petousis and UCT engineering lecturer Samuel Ginsberg then knew the project they were working on could have a massive impact — and not just in South Africa but in any dense township areas across the globe. Soon they were joined by Paul Mesarcik, David Gluckman, Max Basle and Emily Vining, who are Lumkani’s project management and community engagement directors.
“Shack fire is a global challenge and the spread of fire causes a wake of destruction for sometimes thousands of people in one instance,” says Vining. “For people who do not have socio- economic safety nets losing everything is very difficult, if not impossible, to fully recover from not mention the mental, physical and emotional damage inflicted.”
He explains that given the density of urban informal settlements, Lumkani — which previously went under the name Khusela — developed a mesh network that functions as a community-wide alert system, giving enough warning time to respond effectively.
The duo is responsible for creating an early-warning fire detection system for informal settlements. The small blue devices consist of heat detectors for individual homes which are networked with radio frequency and centralised units. When heat is detected, the mesh network is triggered, sending SMSes with GPS locations to community leaders and the local fire department, alerting them of danger.
Unlike smoke detectors, which often react to cooking indoors, the Lumkani unit will only ring if the temperature of the room increases rapidly. When the a fire is detected in your home, the device will sound a single beep tone. When the device sounds a rapid beeping tone, it means that the fire is at one of your neighbours’ houses.
However innovative Lumkani’s system may be, the team is driven by making a positive impact in society.
“We see this as a development challenge,” explains Vining. “We hope that by increasing human security in the risk reduction space we will have positive spillover into other aspects of human beings’ lives, such as increasing the opportunity for families to effectively save or spend their resources on goods that improve their own lives, instead of channeling precious resources into rebuilding lives.”
Marrying social good with success
“Lumkani is very human centered,” Vining says. “We are a social enterprise that sees financial sustainability as an enabler to create positive social impact that can deepen and scale. We are committed to developing technology that responds to real human pain through a process of collaboration in order to great value for all stakeholders.”
Vining says that Lumkani both sells its devices directly to customers while also introducing a lease package, which can be used by government. “We sell devices directly to people living in informal settlements and we have structured a service provision package whereby local government will be able to lease the system from us, creating a recurring revenue stream.”
It’s to no surprise then that Lumkani has been the recipient of prestigious awards. In 2014 it won the award for best startup in the Global Innovation through Science & Technology challenge; the overall prize in the Comfortable Home category for Better Living Challenge 2014; and more recently the startup was as one of the finalists in the SeedStars World challenge held in Geneva, Switzerland.
In terms of funding to date, Lumkani received seed funding of R400 000 from the Technology Innovation Agency in 2014, as well as a Flash Grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation which is usually around US$5 000 (almost R60 000) but a much bigger vote in confidence.
The startup says that its biggest challenge today is distribution. Since it launched in November last year, it’s sold over 850 units, with each carrying a price tag of R110.
In five years time Lumkani aims to have gained significant traction in the global south most affected by urban informal settlements, increasing human security and continuing to develop inclusive technologies that expand choice.