Project uses smoke detectors to fight shack fires

By installing battery-operated smoke detectors, an innovator in Khayelitsha is making homes safer for shack dwellers underserved by firefighters who battle with blocked access.

At the end of 2018, as the days grew hotter and the Cape wind began to bluster, Mzuvukile Monco went to Town 2 settlement in Khayelitsha. He had an idea for how people in the large area of Cape Town’s biggest township could be kept safer: smoke detectors. Residents, unfamiliar with the device, waved Monco away. Then, in October, what Monco had feared would happen came to pass: a roaring fire, which began in the early hours of the morning, swallowed at least 1 000 shacks and left 4 000 people homeless. 

“They rejected me at first because they didn’t know about this thing,” Monco says. 

The devastating blaze continued for five hours after its initial spark began at 4am on 21 October 2018. But fires have accompanied Cape Town’s summers for many years, affecting thousands of residents. 

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According to the City of Cape Town’s Fire & Rescue Service statistics, 559 shack fires were recorded in the 2016/2017 year. In 2017/2018, this number increased to 1 641. For Monco, who grew up seeing and hearing about fires in his neighbourhood of Langa, the damage caused by the flames was devastating.  

The 26-year-old did online research and found a cheap supplier of battery-operated smoke detectors that work without electricity. Monco used some of the money he earns as a learner artisan at Eskom to slowly buy a stockpile of smoke detectors over the past few months. 

Two weeks ago, he began to install them. 

11 July 2019: Funeka Xeketwena outside her home in Endlovini, Khayelitsha.

Making homes safe

Funeka Xeketwena has a full and bustling household. There are more than 20 youngsters of different ages living in her home, including her four grown children who are struggling to find jobs. Xeketwena lives in Endlovini shack settlement in Khayelitsha. The road into the settlement is sandy and rocky, with ditches filled with sludge from the winter rains. 

To access water, residents have to walk to a tap at the entrance of the settlement or find a way to pipe water to their homes. It is a nightmare for emergency vehicles to get through the narrow paths between shacks to respond to a blaze, and residents often need to make sure they have water in their homes in case there is a fire.

Xeketwena struggles to feel safe in her house. In 2017, a shack fire broke out in her neighbourhood while she was asleep. She woke up to the smell of smoke, and when she opened her eyes, she saw the fire licking at the walls of her house. 

“I was so worried about the children,” she says. The 53-year-old lost a TV and fridge in the fire, but her family escaped. 

Two weeks ago, Monco approached Xeketwena with a small circular white device and explained to her that if there is smoke nearby the device will make a noise to alert the family to the threat of fire. Initially, Xeketwena was sceptical. After the smoke detector was installed in her living room, she lit a piece of paper and held it to the device to see if it would work. 

When it began to beep, she felt a sense of relief. “I started to feel safe and comfortable in my house,” she says. 

Among her biggest concerns now is that her children are unemployed and cannot support her grandchildren. Monco, however, is trying to use his project to help residents in the township find work. 

11 July 2019: Mzuvukile Monco inspects the battery-operated fire alarm that he installed in Funeka Xeketwena’s home.

Innovating incubation

Monco started a business called Kasi Innovators to incubate projects that can help young people in Khayelitsha. One of his projects includes Radio Khayelitsha, in which Monco used his DJing skills to get a home-based radio studio off the ground. 

The studio was born from his passion for house music. He tried to make it in the industry, but when that failed, he realised that many youngsters in Khayelitsha were similarly struggling to find their big breaks. 

“I’ve been struggling in the DJ field, and the big guys are always closing doors. I’ve been there like many others have been there where people close doors,” he says. 

He is now attempting to grow the smoke detector project into one where other youths in Khayelitsha can also learn how to install smoke detectors and earn some money. Already, his project has attracted widespread attention after the Daily Voice first published his story. 

So far, he has installed 10 smoke detectors, and he’s hoping that many more will be set up throughout Khayelitsha as his project gains more traction. 

“Safety comes first, especially in the place where you live. It should be where you feel safe,” he says. 

11 July 2019: Narrow roads and muddy conditions in shack settlements such as Endlovini make it difficult for firefighting vehicles to access the area.
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