Saving the community one alarm at a time

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Gauteng woman turns ordeal into an opportunity, writes Neo Semono.

“When it happened to me it didn’t matter, I did nothing about it until it happened to my sister and I had to clean the blood in her house,” says Thuli Mthethwa.

Mthethwa’s life changed when her sister’s Tembisa home was broken into in 2012.

“I myself have been a victim of crime a number of times. When it happened to me it didn’t matter and I didn’t do anything about it until it happened to my younger sister. She was a victim of a house robbery,” she says.

As Mthethwa and I sat in a corner at one of the auditoriums at the Innovation Hub in Pretoria, on the official launch day of the Memeza safety alarm, Mthethwa relays the events of that fateful day that eventually spurred her to action.

I stop and think about how one’s home, which is supposed to be a safe haven to rest and to recharge from the sometimes harsh realities of the world, can turn into a crime scene.

Mthethwa is the director of the Memeza Women Empowerment Project that developed an innovative new small key ring that can save a life by simply pulling its lanyard. The removal of the lanyard from the alarm results in an oscillating sound of 140 decibels.

“They beat up [her] husband, they took everything they took computers and money. They almost raped her girl child. She was screaming, panicking,” she says.

Mthethwa says her sister’s home had been fitted with burglar bars on both the windows and doors, but this did not dissuade the burglars.

“After that incident as a sister I was one of the people that had to clean up the blood on the floor and I was the sister who had to get her out of the emotional state she was in. I was initially very angry that we are supposed to be free since 1994 but there seems to be another kind of attack that we are not free from,” she says.

Earlier in the day, I unknowingly met the smiling, medium height woman, who points me to the right room for the launch of the personal alarm, which was in March distributed to disadvantaged learners and communities in Gauteng. A total of 10 000 alarms were distributed to women and children in the Diepsloot, Tembisa and Eldorado Park townships, among others.

During the launch Mthethwa -- who quit her job as a software developer to design the device -- said the alarm was not only a tool to give a voice to would-be victims and the community but also one that was about helping police in the fight against crime.

“We seem to be prisoners [in our own homes]. How can we go on like this? Why not work on something that would alert the police and neighbours to say no guys I’m in trouble?” she says.

She had thought about how a simple panic button that would alert ‘everybody’ would have helped protect her sister’s family.

That is how the journey began for her.

Mthethwa then visited a few people in Edenvale, Johannesburg who helped her come up with a kind of a panic button after which she entered the South African Breweries (SAB) Foundation Social Innovation Awards competition in 2012.

Her innovation won her R250 000 to do more research for the alarm that works in conjunction with the police and community police forum structures and the community at large.

It was from that competition that she realised that people were tired of crime.

“People are looking for a solution, they are hungry for one. That’s when I realised that I’m not going in the wrong direction [with the alarm]”.

Shortly after winning the 2012 competition, Mthethwa joined the Innovation Hub’s incubation programme Maxum.

Memeza forms part of the 54 entrepreneurs in the Maxum Incubation Programme at the Hub.

This programme develops business leaders while also providing an enabling environment where start-ups from the knowledge-intensive sectors including communications technology and electronics are fast tracked to compete in the global village.

The Hub is a subsidiary of the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency (GGDA). The continent’s first internationally accredited science park implements initiatives identified Gauteng innovation strategy to advance the economic development and growth of the province through innovation.

The project received R1.3 million from the Hub towards the development of the alarm while it also got funding from the National Lotteries Board to distribute the alarms to the 10 000 recipients in Gauteng

The alarm which comes in trendy colours snugly fits into the palm of the hand and can be attached to a school or clutch bag for ease of use when needed.

The device, says Gauteng Community Safety MEC Faith Mazibuko, will contribute towards making women feel safe.

“Crime affects all of us but what is on the increase is the violence against women and children. We hope with this gadget [that] we will see more women being protected,” she says of the device.

Both Mazibuko and Gauteng MEC for Economic Development Mxolisi Xayiya have commended the work done by Mthethwa and the Hub.

Chief executive officer of the Innovation Hub McLean Sibanda described Mthethwa as a “force of innovation” who found an opportunity in a challenge [her being a victim of crime] that was presented to her. “We’ve seen her zeal to make a difference to society,” he says.

When her journey at the Hub began, Mthethwa remembers giving a call to “everyone”, involved in fighting crime and engaging them on the alarm. Those that were contacted responded positively to it and gave their inputs.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) also lauded the alarm’s creation.

“Problems are there, people who are victims of crime complain [about crime] but she decided to do something about it, it was a brilliant idea. This is something that can work in the street,” says Major General Oswald Reddy, who is commander of the Honeydew Cluster SAPS.

Although alarms are nothing new, Reddy notes that this particular alarm is useful for vulnerable people.  Most poor people cannot afford alarms.

“The weak and the vulnerable as well as those living in RDP’s they are the ones who criminals are targeting,” says Reddy.

Well aware that the device does not solve all crime problems, it was a step in the right direction. However, Reddy cautioned the community not to misuse the alarm.

On whether the project has a selection process as to which communities receive the alarms free of charge, Mthethwa replies that the Project is a business that must sustain itself but that at the same time it is cognisant of the social needs of communities.

“There’s a social need that must be addressed. It means both these must run parallel. On the one side we manufacture these things and we sell them so we can sustain ourselves,” she says.

Apart from the personal alarm, Memeza has also developed a household community alarm to make communities feel safer.

The household alarm emits a three-phased siren to alert the community of intrusions. When there is an intrusion at a particular house, that house is identifiable by a flashing red light and SMS messages are sent to the cell phones of local sector police and pre-selected family, neighbours and friends. This alarm and its back end system are being finalised. The alarm can be charged via solar energy at local community centres. It also has a long battery life making it suitable for use in rural areas.

Mthethwa says that the costs of both alarms [when sold individually] will not exceed R100.

 “[The money] will be used to pay for the running of the back end system [for the household alarm]. As time goes on patrollers will also be thanked by giving them a small amount. For those who can afford it, there will be a minimum fee per month but for those who can’t afford it, it will be free.”

 Memeza is currently in talks with government.

“This initiative we developed it not as a private one but as a public initiative that can run along with the department of community safety and with the police,” she explains.

Mthethwa hopes that alarms will act as a deterrent for criminals not to attack people or break into people’s homes.

“Criminals are people, they are intelligent and they also have fear just like all of us however, they have been having an upper hand against communities. Mind you criminals don’t go into a house where they know there’s an alarm or dogs. So if all of us have these alarms in our homes we will become a challenge to the criminals and they will not disrespect our homes by just jumping across the wall. As a result we will have peace in our homes and peace on the streets. The National Development Plan says that by 2030 all citizens in SA must be safe in their homes and in the streets. Hopefully through these alarms this can be achieved,” she says.

With such entrepreneurs, who are cognisant of the challenges facing communities, the country will indeed go far, I think to myself at the end of the chat with this formidable everyday hero. –


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