Informal settlements are home to millions of people in South Africa. People living in such settlements face numerous challenges, such as unemployment, inadequate infrastructure and poor access to basic services.

Many innovative ideas can be formulated to eradicate or alleviate some of these challenges. The ultimate, more viable and sustainable solution is empowering these people to develop their own brilliant ideas and shape them into realistic and measurable plans. The right tools can put communities on track to implementing their own solutions. Prototypes like my Lumo Board are also a good example.

Being raised by a single mother taught me great lessons in life. My mother always told me that I should dream big and always strive to be selfless and conscious of the power I have to change the lives of others.

One Thursday afternoon, I was on my way home after school and drove past an informal settlement.

A random thought came across my mind – I wondered how emergency personnel locate the homes of people who need their attention in serious, life-threatening situations at night. Many informal settlements do not have adequate lighting or other infrastructure, and the absence of lamp posts would make the job difficult for emergency personnel.

After much thought and deliberation, I formulated the idea of a 40 cm x 40 cm wooden board that would have the number of the dwelling on it in fluorescent, glow-in-the-dark paint or reflective material that would be visible at night. This would be known as the Lumo Board. It would hopefully save lives by improving the response time for emergency personnel – like an ambulance rushing to someone in need – by helping them find the settlement more quickly.

After I presented my idea to Innovate the Cape (Global Minimum South Africa), an organization that promotes innovative thinking to solve the social problems we’re facing in South Africa, my idea won for my school. Two of my friends and I entered the competition, and from there we made it to the top seven teams in the competition. The organization provided us with a mentor, and together we did a tremendous amount of research.

We used eco-friendly and sustainable materials and also researched ways of making our board financially viable. The Lumo Board would ideally be made of wood that would have the dwelling’s number on it; the number would also be incorporated in a database for emergency personnel to use. We discovered that we could use branding to pay for the boards, but more importantly, I took the liberty of interviewing people who actually lived in informal settlements. I needed to know whether they or their loved ones had faced emergency situations that were potentially fatal, as a direct result of emergency services being unable to locate their homes in times of need. My research showed that people living in informal settlements often waited hours before emergency personnel reached them.

I feel that it is essential to involve the affected community in such projects. Once people living in informal settlements are provided with the opportunities and informed of the importance and benefits of formulating ideas to combat their challenges, they can create the change they want to see in their communities. Once communities have access to education and new practices of learning, a culture of innovation can be put into motion that can be passed from one generation to the next.

People living in informal settlements might have the misconception that they have no power to change their own situations or deal with their own challenges. Instead of uplifting themselves, some wait for others to assist them. The aim should be to encourage them to break away from the mental oppression and promote a change in mindset by encouraging critical thinking, creativity and innovation. If disenfranchised people can transform their beliefs and attitudes, I believe they can be powerful agents of change for their communities.

Empowering children and youth is vital. Giving them the time to develop their own ideas and providing a platform for them to showcase those very ideas is not only beneficial to their communities, but can promote entrepreneurship to alleviate some of the unemployment and poverty many people are facing. Mentoring, guidance and financial assistance from public, private and non-profit sectors could be a source of support for implementing such plans.

My team and I are still conducting research on ways to improve the Lumo Board to make it a more eco-friendly and sustainable product. We are hoping to produce and distribute Lumo Boards in Cape Town by the end of 2015. We will use feedback from the affected communities to measure the product’s efficiency, and by 2020, we hope each and every informal dwelling in South Africa will have a Lumo Board.