How A South African Teen Is Preventing Deadly House Fires, One Candle At a Time

In this post, we tell the story of Munnira, a South African participant of Hello World. In addition to reading the extended story, we recommend you watch Munnira tell it herself.


Munnira lives in eastern Johannesburg, South Africa, between an overpopulated township and the richest square mile in all of Africa.

A few kilometers west of her home is Sandton, a world-class hub for retail, hospitality, and tourism. The area features tree-lined streets, gourmet dining, and a booming business center with deluxe skyscrapers that are headquarters for many of Africa’s wealthiest banks and businesses.

A few kilometers to her east is Alexandra township, one of the most underresourced areas in South Africa. Nearly 200,000 people cram onto crowded roads and into cheaply built houses and imikhukhu — improvised shacks built in backyards and rented out to other families.

Source: Unequal Scenes

The contrast between Sandton and Alexandra is a stark example of South Africa’s wealth gap, the biggest of any country on the planet. The unemployment rate consistently hovers around 25%, and as of 2015, 56% of South Africans live below the national upper-bound poverty line. These issues — along with housing and education inequality — are married to racial segregation and are deeply rooted in the country’s Apartheid history.

Living between Sandton and Alexandra gave Munnira a front-row seat to this staggering inequality. As she put it, “Growing up, this contrast that I would see between privilege and poverty, the haves and the have-nots, was really a pertinent inquiry of mine.”

“Growing up, this contrast that I would see between privilege and poverty, the haves and the have-nots, was really a pertinent inquiry of mine.”

Specifically, she noticed a deadly pattern that afflicted the residents of Alexandra, but rarely those of Sandton: house fires. Across South Africa, there are regular headlines about people losing their homes, getting injured, and dying in shack blazes in townships like Alexandra.

Her solution? A candleholder, purpose-built to be affordable and sustainable for the communities who need it. She plans to have it developed and distributed throughout South African townships in hopes of saving lives and creating a better future for her country’s most vulnerable people.

Open flames spark 5,000 shack fires per year in South Africa

South Africa’s townships have a long, painful history of shack fires. These fires are so devastating because of the material conditions of the communities, a result of poverty and poor energy access.

Experts estimate over 5,000 shack fires burn through South African townships per year, between 1,000 and 3,000 of which are caused by open flames. Many residents in these townships lack electricity, and even those who have it are subject to frequent blackouts, so they turn to solid fuel sources like paraffin candle wax for heat and warmth.

In addition to paraffin stoves (which are prone to leaking, sputtering, and combusting), residents burn candles to provide light and heat. It’s necessary but dangerous: candles drip scalding wax and can tip over. Their open flames easily jump to nearby materials, such as fabric and cardboard.


Source: The Wall Street Journal

If these open candle flames do catch, entire neighborhoods can go up in flames within minutes. These shacks are built of highly flammable materials and often stand mere inches from one another. Plus, the narrow streets and pathways make it difficult for firefighters to respond before the fire inflicts significant damage.

In 2020, researchers set fire to a group of replica shacks to study how quickly fires spread in these townships. Once the initial spark caught, 20 shacks were aflame in under 10 minutes. By 16 minutes, almost none were left standing.

These candle fires account for severe trauma, property loss, burns (especially among infants), and fatalities. Experts believe long-term solutions will require installing solar-panel grids or converting the residents’ fuel source to liquified petroleum gas. But any discussion of these fires wouldn’t be complete without emphasizing the depth of the root issues, such as wealth distribution, segregation, and poor infrastructure. Put frankly, long-term change won’t be quick or easy.

But a lifetime of bearing witness to these fires moved Munnira to do something about it sooner rather than later. So she began designing her solution.

The surprising importance of candleholders and patents

Munnira designed a low-cost contraption that safely holds, stores, and recycles paraffin candles. The original version of this article contained a breakdown of the design, but it’s currently patent pending, so we’re unable to share the specifications. Instead, Munnira asked if we could explain what a patent is, especially for any young people who might read this article.

Essentially, a patent is a government-granted right that protects a person’s idea from being stolen. It validates an inventor’s idea and forbids others from manufacturing or selling the invention. More information, including patent processes in various countries, can be found on wipo.int.

Munnira particularly encourages young African people to understand and pursue patents. The youth population is exploding in sub-Saharan Africa, and their ideas will become an extremely valuable resource. “Young people are going to contribute meaningfully and significantly to innovation in the 21st century,” Munnira said. “If they take anything away from my journey, it’s that they need to protect their intellectual property in order to do that.”

We can’t discuss Munnira’s design specifications, but we can discuss some of the compelling decisions that went into the design. She insisted on using materials that were eco-friendly, inexpensive, waterproof, shatterproof, and, of course, fireproof. Also, she only selected low-cost materials to ensure the final product remains affordable for poor communities like Alexandra.

During the design process, Munnira was aware of a delicate interplay between her solution and longer-term ones. On top of pursuing this new candleholder, she is a vocal advocate for deeper, infrastructural change.

Whenever she discusses her design, she positions it as a Band-Aid: it’s an important development, but not a long-term solution. Instead, Munnira understands long-term change will come only with significant improvements to South African access and infrastructure in these communities. Years down the line — once paraffin is replaced by safer, eco-friendlier renewable resources — Munnira hopes her candleholder will no longer be necessary.

To make it, Munnira rallied support and raided backyards

Part of Munnira’s genius was how she mobilized her community to support her through the design process.

At the beginning of the process, Munnira knew she wanted to intervene in these devastating fires, but she wasn’t sure how, so she conducted research. She spoke with members of her community, including local business owners, community elders, and her educators, to understand the cause of the fires and the right point of intervention. Eventually, the idea to design a safer method to hold candles began to form.

Munnira is quick to admit that engineering isn’t her forte, so she enlisted the help of her science teacher. After some tutoring sessions, Munnira brought the teacher on board as a science consultant to help transform her initial idea into a design specification and, eventually, a functional prototype.

To build that prototype, though, Munnira needed the right materials. She “went on a rampage of the community’s backyards [...] and the local scrapyard” to find usable materials for a mock-up of what she’d designed alongside her teacher. Eventually, she was ready to write a product proposal and a letter of motivation to secure funding and build the prototype.

Once the final prototype was built, Munnira entered it into a local science fair. Her design was so impressive that she was advanced to the international level and won the third-place prize. Her hope is that within a year, the product will be ready to produce and distribute in communities like Alexandra to prevent house fires and save lives.

Hello World helps Munnira get discovered

Munnira designed the candleholder in high school, but she hopes to pursue a lifetime of creativity, collaboration, and doing good for her community. For the sake of the world, we hope so, too.

We were introduced to Munnira during our pilot program. She described this project in response to the prompt, “Show a community project,” and we were amazed by her ingenuity, storytelling, and commitment to making her community safer. Munnira was able to rally an incredible amount of support for her project and take it to an international science fair, but we think it should be visible to everyone — especially people who can help develop her potential and talent.

To find her next opportunity, Munnira would typically have to surf the internet to find open opportunities for internships, coaching, funding, university programs, etc. Then, she’d need to prepare and submit an application package, perhaps with an essay, test scores, GPA, and a letter of recommendation. While the admissions team would get to meet her, nobody else would.

Instead, Munnira’s video is part of a profile that anyone can see, including admissions teams from opportunities around the world. Thanks to her submission to Hello World, she is being considered for the African Leadership Academy’s youth development program, the Paragon Innovation Fellowship.

Our mission connects young people like Munnira with opportunities for development and growth. We’re off to a good start, but our success depends on partnering with organizations that can lift up the teens telling their stories on our app.

If this sounds like you, we’d love to talk. Please, say hello! I'd love to hear from you.