Sometimes you come across a fact that is so shocking you can’t quite believe it.

In South Africa in the past 12 years 90,000 fires have robbed people of their homes and meant that 9 children have been burnt to death every day. That is such an extra ordinary statistic that it is hard to believe it is still happening in 2014 in one of Africa’s most advanced countries.

Around eleven percent of the population of South Africa live in shacks in informal settlements. They use paraffin to cook on and candles for light. The stoves are often unsafe and when fire breaks out, the consequences can be disastrous leading to homelessness and death.

For my recent programme investigating the world of new materials, I began my journey in the makeshift shanty town of Du Noon, with the fire station commander, Theo Layne who for the past 26 years has been fighting an average of 2 to 3 shack fires a day meaning he has faced thousands of shack fires.

The statistics are horrifying, and with parents at work, the children left in schools and crèches are particularly vulnerable to these fires. With this in mind a local non-profit initiative was established to alleviate the crisis and help these communities. They are using an innovation in material technology to combat the flames.

David Grier is the founder of the Cipla Foundationwhich is introducing a material to be used in Shanty towns which could save thousands of lives. They are beginning by introducing the material in new creches which they are establishing.

The solution they came up with is using vermiculite, which is exfoliated rock. The fire capabilities of vermiculite, have been known for years so the material itself is not new, what could be revolutionary is the use of the material in homes. The vermiculite is then mixed with calcium silicate and a bit of potassium, and under heat it’s recompressed in to a board. That is then skinned on the outer and inner side with a thin steel outer layer. And this makes up the pre-fabricated walls of the buildings they then construct.

David told me that the walls could withstand temperatures of up to 1200 degrees. I was willing to believe him but he insisted that I test it. Much to my horror they gave me a blow torch and while David put his hand on the back of the 4cm thick board, I tried to blow a burning hole in the front of it. Flames burst over the board and David cooly held his hand centimetres away from the burning torch which could have set him alight. There was screaming, but it was me – scared stiff of the flame thrower I was now directing at David.

Amazingly after a minute under a blow torch at around a thousand degrees centigrade the other side was still perfectly cool as was David. I was clearly the only one that was worried.


The Cipla Foundation already have 15 crèche units in action, keeping over 200 children safe, and their goal is to replace 1500 Centres over the next 10 years.

Everyone deserves to know their children are safe in school or childcare, and this product, with its amazing fire resistant properties, goes a long way to doing just that.


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