My mission to stamp out home fires
Toli’s ingenious invention could save many lives
HOMES burnt to the ground, people dead, the charred remains of clothes and furniture strewn all around. Like many South Africans, Toli Altounis was shocked when he saw news footage of a fire that had engulfed a section of Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township back in 2015.
But as he watched the scenes of devastation, he didn’t just feel sympathy for the thousands affected – he also felt a driving need to do something to ensure that what he was witnessing never happened again.
Why are these infernos such a frequent occurrence in impoverished areas, he wondered as he stared at the TV screen in his Johannesburg flat. Surely something could be done to stop shack fires from spreading.
“I thought, ‘I’m sure we can find a solution to fix this’,” Toli (39) tells YOU.
And that’s how the idea for his award-winning Put It Out Mini Fire Extinguisher was born. It’s a concept that’s so breathtakingly simple you’ve got to wonder why nobody thought of it before.
Unlike a conventional extinguisher made of metal, Toli’s invention is a light and inexpensive plastic pouch, rather like the ones used to package olive oil. In it are vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, two ingredients that when combined can stop a small fire in its tracks, preventing it from turning into a raging inferno.
“To use it is simple,” Toli explains. “Step one is to break the seal and open the lid. Step two, you pop the capsule inside, giving it a good squeeze and then what happens is the vinegar and baking soda mix and that produces a lot of carbon dioxide. Then you can just spray it to extinguish the blaze.”
It’s taken him years of hard work to perfect his design but his dedication recently paid off big time. The invention – the first of its kind in the world – was recently awarded third place at the South African Breweries (SAB) Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment Awards, earning him prize money of R750 000.
But while the recognition and the cash are much appreciated, they don’t come anywhere near the satisfaction he feels knowing he’s developed a product that can
TOLI had just left his job at a snack manufacturing company when he saw the news clip about the fire and the idea for Put It Out was sparked. And so began a project that would consume most of his time for the next three years.
“Thousands of hours of research went into getting to what you see,” he says. “It looks simple but getting there was monumental.”
Starting out, Toli was aware that vinegar and bicarbonate of soda were the main ingredients in fire extinguishers and that they’re the most cost-effective way of creating carbon dioxide, which can be used to snuff out fires.
During the research phase of the project he watched plenty of YouTube clips to get the right ratios of vinegar to bicarb.
“I did so many tests with plastic bags containing vinegar and baking soda,” he says.
To see if the combo would work, Toli would start a fire in a barrel and then spray the concoction on it to try to put it out. There were a few hiccups at first, but it eventually worked out.
His idea to separate the two components came from an unlikely source.
It was after seeing a friend’s daughter opening a Kinder Joy egg to get to the toy inside the capsule that he hit on the idea of how to keep the bicarbonate of soda separate from the vinegar until it was needed.
“I realised we could use a plastic capsule to hold the baking soda,” he explains.
But he was still going to have to jump through plenty of hoops before he could get his product into production.
The first Put It Out prototype consisted of a small packet such as the ones used to package potato chips, but Toli soon realised this design was flawed: because it couldn’t stand upright it couldn’t be neatly stored.
When he finally came up with a design he was happy with, the tear slip used to open it malfunctioned and he had to find a new supplier, which entailed looking beyond South Africa.
“The pouch is printed in China but the spout is manufactured in Mexico. And then we assemble the product here in Randburg,” Toli says, referring to his Joburg factory space.
It was independently tested by FireLab at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria, which concluded that the product is as effective as a 0,6kg dry chemical powder fire extinguisher at combating small Class A and small Class B fires.
“Class A is textiles such as blankets and Class B is flammable liquids such as paraffin and alcohol,” Toli explains.
Before it could go into distribution he had to make sure it was nontoxic.
“So if a kid opens it and drinks it, it must be safe. If you drink vinegar, you’re going to get the runs, but you’re not going to die.”
In addition to being safe, the product also had to be cost-effective. With previous versions, manufacturing costs stood at more than R60, which was way too high. “It’s still better than the R200 fire extinguisher but you’re not reaching the people who really need the product,” he tells us.
With a bit of juggling, he managed to get the wholesale price down to R30 a unit.
Another plus is that it has a longer shelf life than a conventional fire extinguisher and doesn’t require annual servicing. If properly stored, the pouch could last longer than three years, Toli points out.
Despite all these advantages, he admits that getting the word out about it is proving to be a big challenge. He says that while everyone knows about the value of owning a fire extinguisher, not everyone can afford one.
“Those who can’t afford one don’t even know there’s a cheap alternative.”
He says because shacks are in such proximity to one another in informal townships, it’s easier for the fire to spread. But if each household had at least one Put It Out pouch these blazes could be nipped in the bud.
“If one person shouts ‘fire’ and you have 20 people come out with one of these, you’ll quickly combat the fire.”
Although the product is primarily aimed at people in low-income communities it can also come in handy in offices, on boats or in homes with thatch roofs.
People find the idea of trying to operate a big fire extinguisher rather daunting, Toli says.
“The Put It Out Mini ire Extinguisher is far less intimidating and all we claim is exactly what’s written on the pouch – which is that it’s for use as the first response to small fires,” he says. “If the fire is too big then you call in the big guns, but all big fires start small.”
put an end to so much needless suffering. Toli Altounis has come up with the award-winning, cost-effective Put It Out Mini Fire Extinguisher which can stop a small fire.
Toli was shocked to see how a fire had destroyed a township and vowed to come up with a cheap but effective fire extinguisher. RIGHT: The Put It Out extinguisher consists of a plastic pouch in which vinegar and bicarbonate of soda are combined to create a foamy carbon dioxide solution.
Toli explains how the product is assembled by hand at his factory in Randburg, Johannesburg.