/ 14 May 2024

Fire control innovation can rise from the ashes of Africa’s informal settlements

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A lack of resources and space in urban centres will mean high density informal settlements will only continue to grow. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Over the past decade, fires have consumed informal homes in South Africa, leading to homeowners losing a staggering R1.4 billion. These aren’t just numbers on a page; they represent dreams shattered, memories turned to ash, families losing what little they built up and a daily struggle for survival in communities already teetering on the economic edge. 

The rapidity with which fires engulf settlements is terrifying. Homes, built side by side with flammable materials, become kindling in mere moments. This is the socio-economic reality of our unequal country; a lack of resources and space in urban centres will mean high density informal settlements will only continue to grow. 

But it’s not just about the physical loss; the emotional toll is immeasurable. The threat of fires causes anxiety and fear, with many losing sleep over the potential loss of their homes and loved ones. 

But, even in these ashes there are stories of resilience and hope.  

A leverage point for innovation 

When fires rage in informal settlements, it’s the people who become the first line of defence. Neighbours band together, forming bucket chains to combat the flames and to break down homes to prevent fires spreading, showing a resilience and unity in the face of disaster that’s awe-inspiring.  

Seeing people collaborate to solve the difficulties they face is something social entrepreneurs can look to for inspiration to innovate. Out of the failure of poor service delivery and difficult conditions for professional emergency response teams comes a leverage point for innovation. 

What if people’s responses weren’t just reactive, but proactive? How could a simple and cost-effective solution better enable communities to use their strengths to prevent disaster? 

These questions drove me and a group of committed individuals (including my former University of Cape Town lecturer, Samuel Ginsberg) to start a social enterprise that would try to help communities take charge of their own safety by providing a high-tech low-cost early-warning system that has been shown to dramatically limit the spread of fires simply by alerting everyone to the fire as soon as it begins. 

Other examples of necessity-inspired ingenuity rising from the ground up abound on the continent, when you start to look for them. 

The founder of Pelebox, Neo Hutiri, came up with the concept after he had to regularly queue for more than three hours each time he needed to collect his medication from the hospital pharmacy. The Pelebox Smart Locker is a digital dispenser installed in hospitals and stocked with routine medicines by healthcare workers. Patients due to collect their prescriptions use a one-time PIN sent to their phones in advance to access their locker of medicine in less than a minute, eliminating the need to queue. 

When designing in these kinds of contexts, solutions must be affordable and scalable to be effective. Partnerships are crucial. Collaboration — be it between governments, NGOs or corporate entities, and communities — are vital. 

Such solutions have to start with empathy, but even more than that, it has to begin with people being given the power to come up with their own solutions. We can no longer design for people; we need to design with them. Nothing else will work. The practice of human-centred design makes intuitive sense, but it is still surprisingly rare for companies to start from this premise.  

Contextually-informed innovation 

As Richard Perez, founding director of the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking at UCT, writes in a recent Business Day article, “Human-centred design approaches a problem not from the points of feasibility or viability, but from the point of desirability … It solves a problem by asking what the end user, the human, wants and needs in the solution.” 

This approach, he points out, has created sports shoes that double as fashion statements, crafted affordable insurance policies, helped farmers deal with climate change, transformed scary MRI machines into pirate ships to reduce the need to sedate children before scans, and replaced canvas tents with portable, sturdy family shelters for housing refugees. 

Such examples should spur us on. It’s time to shift our perspective. Innovation isn’t just about cutting-edge technology or the latest gadget; it’s about understanding the unique challenges of a context and crafting solutions that resonate. Many times, such solutions will look beyond traditional methods.  

But why is this so crucial? The answer lies in the projections for Africa’s future. Demographic growth forecasts predict a booming population. Even with optimistic economic growth rates, a significant portion of this population will find themselves in informal settlements — estimates are that one in four people globally will live in one by 2030 — facing the same challenges that communities face today.  

Add to this the looming spectre of climate change, with its promise of extreme weather events, and the picture becomes even grimmer. Prolonged periods of heat, interspersed with drought, could make fires and other hazards an even more frequent visitor to settlements with inherently low adaptive capacity. 

So, where do we go from here? The first step is recognition. Recognising that although the problems are immense, some might say overwhelming, the solutions lie in the people. We need an appreciative approach: it’s about harnessing the inherent resilience, unity and adaptability of those living in informal settlements and providing tools and frameworks to enhance these strengths.  

The second step is optimism. As Mugendi K M’Rithaa, a transdisciplinary industrial designer, consultant, educator and researcher based in Kenya, says: “Africa is caught in a loop where negative stories about the continent reinforce a lack of investment and optimism. To break this cycle, we need to find new ways to tap into African ingenuity from the ground up.”   

Francois Petousis is a fellow at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town and co-founder and chief executive of Lumkani, a social enterprise with a mission to mitigate the loss of life and property caused by shack fires.