Better Living Challenge


About our Finalists: Khusela

Aug 20, 2014



Where there’s smoke, there’s fire 


There’s no smoke without fire − and that is exactly the problem when it comes to fire detection in South Africa’s informal settlements. Since many informal settlement residents already use smoky fossil fuels, traditional smoke detectors do not work. This makes the pervasive danger of fires in informal settlements even harder to prevent.



With more and more South Africans congregating closer and closer together as urbanisation accelerates, the risks associated with fire are increasing. Among other factors, the country’s informal settlements have no or limited access to electricity; building materials are highly combustible; and structures are often unstable. As a result, these environments are particularly susceptible to fire hazards.


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Image: The Khusela device 


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  Image: Finalist David Gluckman and Francois Petousis demonstrating the Khusela device


Khusela is a low-cost fire detector and alert system specifically designed to address fire risks among low-income households. It emerged from the thesis project by University of Cape Town (UCT) engineering honours student, Francois Petousis. Along with Samuel Ginsberg, his electrical engineering lecturer at UCT, Francois co-founded Khusela in 2013. They were subsequently joined by fellow engineer Paul Mesarcik, David Gluckman, project manager, community relations expert Emily Vining and industrial designer Max Basler.



Image: Max Basler (Industrial Design); Emily Vining (Community Relations); David Gluckman (Project Manager, Operations & Finance); Paul Mesarcik (Engineer & Strategy); Francois Petousis (Engineer, Co-founder & Strategy); Missing: Samuel Ginsberg (Engineer, Technical Director & Co-founder)


In the event of a fire, Khusela’s in-shack heat detector rings to alert the family inside the home. If the device is not muted it transmits a warning that activates heat detector alarms in neighbouring homes up to 100 metres from the source of the fire. A future development will allow people to use Khusela’s cellphone interface, the clients’ pre-registered location information will be sent to alert the local fire station. Meanwhile, clients in the affected area will receive warning SMS messages.


“In the medium term, we will integrate the local fire station with the GPS location of the fire, allowing for a proactive early response among communities affected by blazes,” notes David.


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The design of the Khusela detector is informed by the constraints and challenges of informal settlement environments. Using mobile network technology designed for an informal dwelling, the in-shack device uses an innovative heat detector. The device will sell at the affordable cost of R90, with the battery only needing to be replaced after three years of use.


But what differentiates this device from standard smoke detectors? As Francois explains: “The device’s heat technology is the most effective way to rapidly detect a fire in informal settlements. The fact is that standard smoke detectors are ineffective in an environment that is already smoky because of the heating, lighting and cooking methods its inhabitants use.”


After recently picking up the People’s Choice award at the Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC) at the University of California in Berkley, USA, the Khusela team is looking ahead with confidence. Having understood the pressing challenges facing low-income communities and by designing an affordable fire detection device and alert system to meet those needs, the team is on its way to helping transform millions of lives.