SA students win US prize for fire-alert innovation

13 May 2014

A team of South African students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) has won a People’s Choice Award for their low-cost fire detection device for shack-dwellers at the annual Global Social Venture Competition at the University of California, Berkeley in the US.

The project was named one of the top five initiatives worldwide and won the award in the global round in April. They competed against hundreds of entries from around the world, beating 18 finalists in the last round.

The competition is one of the world’s pre-eminent social business plan competitions, providing aspiring entrepreneurs with mentoring, exposure and prize money to transform their business ideas into positive real-world projects.

Khusela, which means “protect”, is an integrated alert service designed for shack-dwellers. There is a lack of fire-fighting infrastructure in South African informal settlements, where shack fires are an ongoing problem.

“Our proactive early-warning system networks individuals within communities and with the authorities to mitigate the loss of life and property caused by shack fires, a global human tragedy,” said electrical engineer Francois Petousis, co-founder of Khusela, who is currently undertaking a Masters degree in inclusive innovation at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB).

“There are a billion shack/slum-dwellers across the globe, and that is set to soar to 1.4-billion by 2020,” Petousis said in a statement issued by the school.

Khusela is based on Petousis’s honour’s thesis, and the Khusela team consists of electrical engineering lecturer Samuel Ginsberg, economist and Khusela co-founder David Gluckman, community researcher Emily Vining, industrial designer Max Basler, and electrical engineer Paul Mesarcik.

The team entered the international competition through the UCT Student Social Venture Programme, which is hosted by Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the UCT GSB Net Impact Chapter.

The UCT programme was created to improve the quality and performance of African universities at global social business plan competitions. The Bertha Centre is the southern African regional outreach partner for the social innovation competition, and hosts the initial round of the competition.

The director of the Bertha Centre, Dr François Bonnici, said that African teams had not featured in global competitions in the past because they lacked support and sponsorship.

“Our firm belief in setting up the UCT Student Social Venture Programme at the GSB was that student social ventures of global standards were being developed in South Africa, not just at UCT, that deserve our support,” Bonnici said.

Khusela is not the first South African team that has passed through the programme. Last year, graduates the Reel Gardening team won both the social innovation prize and the Hult Prize London regional competitions, beating 50 other universities, and was one of six teams globally to compete in the prestigious Clinton Global Initiative.

UCT GSB director Walter Baets said social innovation was increasingly gaining focus, not only in business but at business schools. “Especially in our emerging market situation, we need to encourage innovative thinking and the generation of new ideas to meet the unique challenges of our environments.”

Petousis said going to Berkeley was extremely exciting for the team. “After all 18 finalist teams presented to the judges on our first day of competition in Berkeley, Khusela was named as one of the six teams to go onto the next stage of the finals, which was a fantastic achievement considering the range of powerful teams who had presented their social enterprises that day.”

The next step for the Khusela team will include making use of recent funding received from the Technology Innovation Agency and UCT to fully develop, test and roll out about 2 000 devices in a pilot project in South Africa.

“We received excellent feedback from the judges specifically because our numbers were reasonable and justified, we have significant scalability and a strong plan to do so, the social impact scales as the business does, so there is a significant market which we have great opportunity to serve and the value created is significant,” Gluckman said.

Petousis said just being a part of the competition was inspiring. “All these people are devoting their lives to discovering how we can create a world where you get paid to do good, where business can function to support that which really matters and makes a difference to humans. The room was far from what traditionally is the mood of a competition. The ethos was of support and collaboration, because at the core, everyone was there to serve a bigger purpose than their own.”

Gluckman added that there was lots of scope out there for other aspiring social innovators to get involved.

“Get out and engage with the community that you wish to serve. Get off the computer, stop writing the business plan, put down the pen and paper and get into your market and find out. In social impact work, it is critical to know with as close to 100% certainty that there is truly a need. That’s true for any business, but specifically in the social impact space where resources are scarce and challenges are huge.”

SAinfo reporter and University of Cape Town