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.

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