Imizamo Yethu — When she woke up to her neighbours’ shouts outside, Lundy’s three-year-old toddler was already choking on the smoke that had seeped into their shack in the Imizamo Yethu settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town.

“I just took my baby and ran away,” said Lundy, who declined to give her full name, recalling the 2017 fire — one of the worst to hit the city, dubbed the country’s “fire capital” — which left her and about 15,000 others homeless.

After taking her child to hospital for smoke inhalation, Lundy went home to find everything had burnt down. Devastating fires occur with alarming frequency in SA’s tightly-packed informal settlements where shacks are built next to unpaved paths too narrow for a car, never mind a fire engine, to pass through. More than 5,000 fires break out in informal settlements each year, according to official data, often caused by people using open flames for cooking, lighting and heat, or by faulty electrical appliances. Lumkani, a team of South African entrepreneurs, has developed two innovations to save both lives and homes: an alarm to alert residents to danger; and insurance to help those who lose their property to get back on their feet. The value of losses to fires in informal settlements is increasing every year, reaching almost R180m in 2017, according to the Fire Protection Association of Southern Africa.

“The real solution to shack fires is to end shacks,” said Francois Petousis,...

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