MPhil student Francois Petousis, founder of Lumkani, is one of a new guard of social innovators who are inspired to use their energy and ingenuity to create social value.
BR: In 2013, Lumkani (previously Khusela) won the People’s Choice Award at the Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC), held each year at the University of California, Berkeley. More recently you came second in two separate categories at South Africa’s innovation summit, and received an award to go on a South African trade delegation to Japan. You’ve also reached the finals of the Seedstars World competition taking place in Switzerland early next year, and the finals of the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) competition. Tell us a bit more about Lumkani and why it is turning heads around the world.
FP: Lumkani is a proactive, early-warning, fire detection system designed for shack-dwellers worldwide. It is a network of individual lowcost fire detectors within communities, which, when triggered, alert whole communities to the event of a fire, so that they can take swift action to either stop the fire or escape with families and possessions intact. It is practical and scalable and we have a strong plan to do so. The social impact scales as the business does, so there is a significant market that we have great opportunity to serve. When you consider how many people there are in the world who live in slums (over 1 billion) where fire risk is a daily anxiety – you get a sense of the potential of this device. The impact of shack fires has an adverse effect on economies and is a development challenge that needs to be addressed.
BR: Do you think that social innovation is gaining momentum in the world as a way to solve wicked problems?
FP: There is no doubt that the scale and complexity of the problems we face in the world today demand more and more from us. Social innovation, which by its nature is collaborative and creative and looks at challenges with fresh eyes, is definitely born out of this. At the GSVC event there was definitely a sense in the room of a shift in the world – that all these people were 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. It was inspiring to know that this was the focus of people from across the globe. 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.
BR: Where did the idea come from?
FP: Lumkani, which means ‘be cautious’, was initially the topic of my engineering thesis at UCT to develop a low-cost fire detector that I developed with Samuel Ginsberg, who today is the main designer of our technology. The project grew further when social change agent, Emily Vining joined the team. During my MPhil at the UCT GSB I realised that the idea had the potential to be a social venture that generated profits to sustain itself, not an NGO that would be dependent on funding and that that was in fact the way to really grow the organisation to reach meaningful numbers of people. We started working with an exciting mix of people to build a strong base for our social business including economist, David Gluckman, product developer, Max Basler, and engineer and strategic thinker, Paul Mesarcik. None of what we’ve developed so far would have arisen without this fantastic team of committed people. When we came together was when everything really started to expand. Our best ideas came through conversation.
BR: What advice do you have to give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
FP: You’ve got to get out into the world and play. Try things out. Engage with the people and the world you want to impact. You’ll learn the most and it’ll give you the personal connection you need to be inspired in your work. With that connection will come the deep care and values that need to be clear in any growing social enterprise. The other big one for me has been to share what you’re up to with the world, with all the people around you. Everything and everyone that we need to make something come to life, is out there. We just need to ask. When the right people are on board, things grow fast and with such depth… and of course it’s far more enjoyable working together. Oh, and dream big.