Mukuru, Nairobi, 16 April 2016 – Fire sensors is not the first thing I would think of as a necessary innovation for Nairobi’s sprawling informal communities. Probably not even among the top ten needs I would have considered.
After a recent visit to Mukuru, however, I was convinced otherwise. Mukuru is a crowded informal settlement with about 10,000 people living cheek to jowl.
Nairobi County hosts 8% of the Country’s population (between 3-4 million). Although the informal settlements in Nairobi only cover 6% of the city ground, it is estimated that 60 % of the population now live in these informal settlements. Considering that 4 out of 10 people living in urban areas in Nairobi are under 15 years, children in Mukuru are some of the most vulnerable children.
The small homes squeezed together are divided by thin walls and constructed with materials that are creatively recycled and often highly flammable cardboard and metal sheeting. For privacy, many hang cloth for their front door including separating classrooms for children. A precarious web of wires hang over Mukuru’s tight walkways to provide basic, albeit “off the grid” electricity.
An unintended consequence – fire. In such a setting fire spreads quickly. And in Mukuru it spreads quickly and often. The results are devastating – death, injury, loss of personal possessions and destruction of schools, businesses – the list goes on.
Surviving a fire is traumatic. Surviving. two, three or four is even more so. While in Mukuru, we visited an informal primary school and heard poems and stories from teachers and students about fires that have razed their homes and schools. Unpredictable, common fire also generates fear.
Earlier detection of heat and small fire could go a long way to prevent and contain fires in Mukuru. So, UNICEF is working with Mukuru’s leaders and the Red Cross to test a heat sensor that sends real time alerts enabling earlier detection and a greater chance of containment.
Distributed in just 1,000 homes and some schools and day care centers, the leaders report that the device has reduced the number of fires spreading and wreaking havoc in those pilot areas. The smart sensor has also given a sense of some control and thus empowerment to women headed households.
Almost as important as these early results are the lessons we are learning.
The device itself is innovative – a small wireless box that sends a signal to authorities when it senses heat. Local leaders and the community have been trained on how to respond including getting children to a safe place. The children know where the safe building is and know to run there themselves if a fire breaks out in their school or home.
This is a pilot, however, and with our partners we have to and will examine how to engage local private companies’ support; continue coordinating with local leaders; expand creation and training of community fire brigades and; work with designers to make the heat sensor more efficient in this unique context.
What is exciting is that real time information is being modified for this context to tackle a real and devastating problem. Continuing to capture the lessons with the community leaders themselves as well as our partners on the ground will be critical.