UCT wins international prize

Francois Petousis (left) and David Gluckman (

A student team from the University of Cape Town wins People’s Choice Award at the Global Social Venture Competition with their low-cost fire detection device for shacks.

A student team from the University of Cape Town (UCT) has won a top prize at the Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC), which is held annually at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) in the US.

The UCT team and their project Khusela – a low cost fire detection device for informal housing – was named one of the top five initiatives worldwide and took the GSVC People's Choice award in the global round – competing against hundreds of entries and winning out against 18 finalists in the last round.

The Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC) is the world’s pre-eminent social business plan competition providing aspiring entrepreneurs with mentoring, exposure, and prize money to transform their business ideas into positive real-world impact.

Khusela, which means “protect”, is a low-cost fire detection device and integrated alert service designed for shack-dwellers worldwide. In South Africa, there are on average 10 shack fires a day with someone dying in a shack fire every other day, according to Abahlali baseMjondolo, a South African shack-dwellers' movement.

“Our proactive early-warning system networks individuals within communities and with the authorities to mitigate the loss of life and property caused by shack fires – a global human tragedy,” says Francois Petousis, co-founder of Khusela, who is currently undertaking a Masters in Inclusive Innovation at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB). “There are 1 billion shack/slum-dwellers across the globe that is set to soar to 1.4 billion by 2020.”

The Khusela team entered into the international competition through the UCT Student Social Venture Programme (SSVP), which is hosted by Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the UCT GSB Net Impact Chapter, and was created to improve the quality and performance of African universities at global social business plan competitions. The Bertha Centre is the Southern African regional outreach partner for GSVC and hosts the initial round of the competition.

Director of the Bertha Centre, Dr François Bonnici, says that in the past, African teams have not featured much in global competitions because they did not get the support or sponsorship they needed and weren’t encouraged to enter such competitions.

“Our firm belief in setting up the UCT Student Social Venture Programme at the GSB was that student social ventures of global standards were being developed in South Africa, not just at UCT that deserve our support. We are extremely proud of our students, who have affirmed our belief!”

Khusela is not the first South African team that has passed through the programme. Last year graduates the Reel Gardening team won both the GSVC and the Hult Prize London regional competitions, beating 50 other universities, and was one of six teams globally to compete in the prestigious Clinton Global Initiative.

UCT GSB Director Professor Walter Baets says social innovation is increasingly gaining focus not only in business but at business schools. “Especially in our emerging market situation, we need to encourage innovative thinking and the generation of new ideas to meet the unique challenges of our environments."

Khusela is based on the honours thesis of Petousis. The team further consists of Samuel Ginsberg, David Gluckman, Emily Vining, Max Basler, and Paul Mesarcik.

Petousis says going to Berkeley was extremely exciting for the team. “After all 18 finalist teams presented to the judges on our first day of competition in Berkeley, Khusela was named as one of the six teams to go onto the next stage of the finals, which was a fantastic achievement considering the range of powerful teams who had presented their social enterprises that day.”

The next steps for Khusela will include making use of recent funding received from the Technology Innovation Agency and UCT to fully develop, test and roll-out about 2,000 devices in a pilot project in South Africa.

“We received excellent feedback from the judges specifically because our numbers were reasonable and justified, we have significant scalability and a strong plan to do so, the social impact scales as the business does, so there is a significant market which we have great opportunity to serve and the value created is significant,” says David Gluckman, Director of Finance & Operations at Khusela.

Petousis said just being a part of the competition was inspiring. “All these people are 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. 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.”

Gluckman adds that there is lots of scope out there for other aspiring social innovators to get involved.

“Get out and engage with the community that you wish to serve. Get off the computer, stop writing the business plan, put down the pen and paper and get into your market and find out. In social impact work, it is critical to know with as close to 100% certainty that there is truly a need. That’s true for any business, but specifically in the social impact space where resources are scarce and challenges are huge.”

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