In the Mukuru informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, volunteers walk the streets and knock on doors, informing residents about how to get involved in community disaster preparedness efforts.
Photo: Juozas Cernius/American Red Cross

Bright ideas, local solutions

As humanitarians explore new technologies and innovation, how can local communities shape the technologies best suited for their needs? A pilot project in two informal settlements in Kenya and South Africa offers some insights.

Unathi Oscar Kweyi lost his father in a fire in Khayelitsha township, an informal settlement near Cape Town, South Africa. “It was very, very painful for me to lose my father in that kind of tragedy,” he says. “Fire kills. Fire is very, very dangerous.”

He is now a volunteer with the South African Red Cross Society, working with a community-based emergency response team to fight fires, manage disasters and deliver first aid. “If we can educate people about the danger of fire, it can reduce and minimize the death rate,” says Kweyi, who was trained for these tasks as part of the Fire Sensors for Safer Urban Communities Initiative, a collaborative programme of the American Red Cross, the South African Red Cross and the Kenya Red Cross Societies.

This initiative is centred around two informal settlements, Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town , South Africa and home to roughly 400,000 residents, and Mukuru, in Nairobi, Kenya, with some 250,000 inhabitants.

In informal settlements such as these, fire is a leading safety concern. People live in neighbourhoods of densely packed, makeshift shacks separated only by narrow alleys. Houses are built of wood, cardboard and corrugated tin, so fire spreads quickly, destroying entire communities in a matter of minutes. The areas are difficult to access and help is often delayed by the lack of proper infrastructure.

“It’s important to understand the impact of fires in urban informal settlements, particularly how unreported they are,” says Everlyne Wangema, project officer for the Kenya Red Cross Society’s disaster management department. “The general causes are illegal electricity connection, household cooking, lighting and water heating methods, and sometimes arson.”

On the surface, the project seems quite straightforward: to install fire sensors in homes and other buildings to provide faster warning while also helping to develop the means to prevent and respond to fires. But this project is about much more: it is deeply rooted in community participation. The end users have been involved at every stage, from project planning to design and implementation.

Set up as part of a wider American Red Cross initiative called the Global Dialogue on Emerging Technology for Emerging Needs, the fire-sensor projects began after community members in the two settlements were asked to identify the risks they considered most critical to their well-being and safety.

“This is an innovation process led by local communities,” claims Abi Weaver, director of the American Red Cross’s Global Technology Initiative. “They are choosing which technologies they want to use. They are choosing how they are used and who uses them.

“With the fire-sensor project, that means working through a participatory design and innovation process with community members living in the settlements,” she adds. “We had to force ourselves not to make assumptions on behalf of the community nor let our opinions and the potential we see drive the decisions. The communities are the most knowledgeable about the problems and about what will work in the long run.”

By Anita Vizsy

Anita Vizsy is a freelance writer based in Nairobi.

This does not mean that there isn’t significant outside involvement in the project; more than 20 partners collaborated on this complex issue. To facilitate the process, for example, a private company that specializes in ‘human-centred’ design worked with community members to help adapt devices already on the market to make sure they meet the needs of the community where it would be used — from colour and price to function and durability. In Khayelitsha, for example, the design company also engaged community members in developing a business model in which users pay a modest fee to support ‘fire clubs’ that help communities with fire preparedness, response and recovery.  Rather than providing the sensors for free — it’s hoped there will be sustained market incentive for product development, marketing and use.

Residents have also been mapping their community as part of the project. Using hand-held GPS devices or phones, they enter GPS coordinates of potential hazards and assets, such as schools and water points and possible locations for shelters in the event of emergency. This kind of data helps the community both to prepare for disasters and to advocate for services, rights and resources.

In many ways, Khayelitsha and Mukuru represent some of the key challenges facing humanitarians today — rapid urbanization compounded by economic hardship and recurring crises, large and small. The projects under way in these settlements may also offer an example of how community-led innovation, combined with global and local partnerships with the private sector and civil society, can lead to sustainable, long-term risk reduction and community resilience.

Opposite, in their own words, several people participating in the project talk about what they’ve learned in the process.

Unathi Oscar Kweyi, a resident of Khayelitsha informal settlement in Cape Town, South Africa and a volunteer for the South African Red Cross Society.
Photo: Juozas Cernius/IFRC

Fire spreads extraordinarily fast in informal settlements and
the consequences are often deadly. Here, residents of the Mukuru settlement in Nairobi look for belongings in the aftermath of a fire in June 2015. Photo: Juozas Cernius/American Red Cross

Innovation: it takes a village

When people living in two settlements in Africa engaged with humanitarians and businesses to solve a deadly public safety issue, they all learned something new.

Namatham ‘Thamie’ Sana Sibutha

Resident and community task force member from the settlement of Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa

As a community leader in Khayelitsha, Sibutha works hand-in-hand with the South African Red Cross Society to “uplift the way we live. Even if we live in shacks, we are still human and need to upgrade that standard.”

“This is the first time we engaged with Red Cross in this way. We normally saw the Red Cross when there was a disaster, bringing food or blankets. But this time it’s different. The Red Cross came to us and said: ‘Community, we are coming to help you, but we can’t help you unless you help yourself. You must engage yourself first so that we can work hand-in- hand to help the community.’

“Here in Khayelitsha, the firefighters are far from us and there is no space between the houses for the van to come. Because of the training from the Red Cross, now we can control fire. The sensor can alert us in time and we can prevent the fire from going further.

“We used to handle the fire carelessly, but now we’re cautious. We know how to help people who are injured from fire [and] how to prevent fire before it happens.”

Photo: Juozas Cernius/IFRC

David Gluckman

Co-founder, Lumkani, Cape Town, South Africa

As a social enterprise that develops low-cost fire detection devices for informal settlements, Lumkani was already providing sensors in Khayelitsha before the American Red Cross initiative began.

“Social enterprises must always be market-focused and need to be innovative with their business models. Donors need to see themselves as investors in impact; the social enterprise will invest this revenue to ensure, in the most market-efficient way, that further revenue and impact is generated.

“The biggest lesson we’ve learned is that there are multiple stakeholders who have an interest in the project. To be sustainable, you need to get all the players in and be very engaged with them.”

Photo: Juozas Cernius/IFRC

Taariq Twaha

Group Head of Information Technology, Kenya Red Cross Society

For Taariq Twaha, the fire-sensor project marked the first time the Kenya Red Cross Society integrated technology and innovation so deeply within a community-based project.

“We’ve learned that, for [the Kenya Red Cross information
technology team] to give real value, we need to be heavily
involved from the beginning to the end. Previously, we’ve been looked at as people who fix computers. Now, we’re moving to become a strategic partner.

“As humanitarians, we don’t have the money to invest in
developing new technologies. We need to look at how we can borrow technologies that are already in use and see how best we can apply them to humanitarian work.

“The big question is how do we engage our donors to be able to accept failure? If we get donors that are willing to try out new technologies, I think we’ll go a long way in addressing humanitarian issues.”

Photo: Juozas Cernius/IFRC

Craig Cisero

Business Strategist, Frog Design, Milan, Italy

Frog Design refers to itself as a human-centred design firm. This approach guided the company’s efforts to facilitate a process in which community members play a central role in
shaping the way the fire sensors are designed, distributed and used. The idea is to make sure the fire sensors truly suit local needs and will be embraced by everyone in the community.

“Ultimately what organizations would like to get out of technology is a situation in which [solutions develop on their own] without having to be constantly donated and kept up by people volunteering their time. Understanding what kind of business or self-sustaining opportunity there is — based on the way people react to the product — is where the real value comes from.”

Photo: Juozas Cernius/IFRC

Everlyne Wangema

Project Officer, Disaster Management Department, Kenya Red Cross Society

Everlyne Wangema says this initiative brought technology and community engagement to a whole new level in the National Society’s disaster management programming.

“Without community buy-in we would not have been able
to mobilize the numbers of people that we did. Sustainability is about continuously engaging and understanding the environment.

“If you don’t have the kind of engagement that’s genuine and that produces results that matter to the people then it becomes another white elephant — it just becomes another project.

“As an organization, [the Kenya Red Cross] has gone from response to being more proactive. Instead of just providing relief, we build resilience, improve capacity; we give the fishing rod to people so they themselves can fish. I think that is what humanitarian affairs and management at this point in the world should be.”

Photo: Juozas Cernius/IFRC


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It’s the stuff of science fiction: machines that make decisions about who and when to kill. Referred to as “autonomous weapons”, they’re already in use to some degree. But as more sophisticated systems are being developed we wanted to an expert in the field about whether such systems comply with international humanitarian law and what it means for humanity to give machines the power over human life and death.

‘Wildfire diaries’ and radical change in communications

In this episode, we talk with humanitarian communicator Kathy Mueller who produced our first magazine podcast series, The Wildfire Diaries, about massive wildfires in Northern Canada in 2017. We talk about that series, her many international missions, and the big changes in humanitarian communications since she began with the Canadian Red Cross almost 20 years ago.

The power of storytelling

In this episode, we talk about the power of storytelling to inform and inspire. “Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of human communication,” says our guest Prodip, a volunteer and multi-media storyteller for the Bangladesh Red Crescent. “It inspires us to be a hero of our own community.” We also speak with one such community hero, Dalal al-Taji, a longtime volunteer and advocate for inclusion of people with disabilities in emergencies response. “In disasters. persons with disabilities sometimes get forgotten.”

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