African liveability

How the Cool Shack could change lives in informal settlements


When it comes to extreme weather conditions and natural disasters, there’s no denying that those living in informal settlements on the outskirts of Cape Town are by far the most vulnerable. Population density and highly flammable construction material, can see fires that would normally be easy to control, wreak havoc within an hour, while a lack of proper drainage and infrastructure often leads to severe flooding.

While there are no quick and simple fixes for any of these problems, we are lucky to have a wealth of bright minds in South Africa working on the kinds of solutions that do their bit for improving the quality of life to one degree or another.

For instance, the Lumkani alarm that serves as an early warning system to reduce the damage caused by shack fires in informal settlements, or DryBath gel by Headboy Industries that offers a waterless washing alternative for informal dwellings that do not have bathroom facilities of their own.

Then, during a recent TEDxUCT event, law student and businesswoman, Zinhle Novazi introduced the ‘Cool Shack’.

The brainchild of the Neotoric Consortium – an innovations group formed by Novazi and a few friends – this specially-designed shack finds affordable ways of reducing indoor temperatures and managing drainage, as well as providing waterproofing, fire retardation and passive lighting. All small additions that can make a huge difference in the quality of life. 

Intrigued and curious to know more, we popped a few questions over to Zinhle, who kindly answered them midway through exams

What is your background?

I consider myself to be a proud African feminist and an aspiring social entrepreneur. I am passionate about innovation that enables us to find solutions for social, cultural and environmental issues. I also dream of an economic renaissance for Africa characterised by social justice, equality and economic freedom. I am currently doing my postgraduate degree in Law at the University of Cape Town, after completing an undergrad in Social Sciences.

I caught the social entrepreneurial bug through a business case competition that I entered with my teammates in 2014. Our goal was not to reap great returns with Cool Shack, but rather to see communities being transformed. As a feminist, issues that face informal settlements are of great concern, because it is always black women that are affected the most.

How did you get involved in the Cool Shack project?

Initially, I invited Andri, Gregory and Ndabezinhle to form part of my team for a business competition. After this, we decided that we wanted to form a company that would focus on solving issues that shack dwellers faced, and so the Neotoric Consortium was born. This was a beautiful collaboration because we are a very diverse team: Andri is Namibian, a final-year Geology student and owns Slice Pizza on Long Street; Ndabezinhle is Zimbabwean, one of the owners of Jwarha Beer, and a final-year student in Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Gregory is a South African who owns the Wealth Institute PTY LTD. We assumed various roles in execution of the project.

Can you explain what the inspiration behind the design and development of the Cool Shack is?

Initially, my teammates  Gregory Makama, Andri Ntema and Ndabezinhle Ndebele  and I had a strong interest in social entrepreneurship, and we were looking alternative cost-effective solutions for lighting and water drainage. We had entered several business competitions in the hopes of getting our initiatives funded. The issue we faced was that we were trying to solve problems on a macro scale. We then started consulting with Dr Kevin Winter, in the Environmental and Geographical Sciences Department at the University of Cape Town, who was already conducting research on houses in the informal settlements and started looking at the issues shack dwellers were facing on a day-to-day basis instead.

Conditions in these shacks are far from ideal with high to bitterly cold indoor temperatures. Moreover, there was a strong willingness of shack dwellers to invest in homes so as to improve the health, comfort and support required to be productive citizens, including the health of their children who attend schools. We were inspired as a team to make a difference on a micro level, transforming one household at a time. Moreover, we wanted to improve living conditions by reducing risks to unhygienic and unhealthy conditions.


What are the features that set a Cool Shack apart from most other shacks in informal settlements? Can you share a few findings from the tests you conducted, using a control shack?

  • The Cool shack is draped with a fire retardation chemical that is soaked into the woven fabric that covers the structure. The material is inflammable, although it does melt with intense heat, and could give the occupants a few extra minutes in which to save lives and possessions in the event of a fire in an informal settlement.
  • Further insulation and fire retardation is achieved with plastered walls made from cement and sand, combined with newspaper strips. The plaster is tightly packed against the walls to prevent the growth of bacteria and algae on walls, so as to reduce the spread of pathogens and improve the hygiene within the confined indoor spaces.
  • Unlike most shacks that have flat roofs, Cool Shacks have pitched roofs, which help to drain water into surrounding column gardens. The soil is contained by used car tyres, reducing and potential flooding around the dwelling. These micro gardens offer opportunities for growing edible crops.
  • The shacks are also fitted with ‘litres of light’ bottles that distribute passive light into the home during the day. In addition, the dwelling has a plumbed basin that enables the occupants to dispose grey water into an aerobic and anaerobic soak away, which makes it safer to dispose of unwanted water.

In an earlier phase of the Cool Shack project, an experiment was conducted by UCT’s Environmental and Geographical Science Department over a period of three months during warm summer conditions. The researchers tested different designs and materials, and the results suggest that it was possible to reduce the searing indoor temperature by 10°C. Conditions were monitored using high-resolution data sensors that captured these changes in a controlled experiment and found that on warm days, conditions were cooler and more comfortable inside the dwelling than outside.

One example, extracted from data on the 29 January 2015, showed a rapid rise of 15°C in temperature within the control shack from 08:30 to 10:00, reaching a peak of 41°C. This is simply unbearable for being indoors. On this occasion, indoor temperatures in the experimental Cool Shack were at least 10°C cooler than the control shack and 3°C cooler than outside temperatures.

Have Cool Shacks actually been rolled out anywhere? If so, where?

We have not been able to roll out Cool Shacks yet, but the current demo model is available for viewing at the MTN Science Centre. We experienced difficulty with funding, as the project offers little returns for potential investors and our client base cannot afford them. We’re looking at alternatives to make the Cool Shack more affordable and to create a payment plan that will suit our clients.

Is there a website or something that people can visit to find out more about the shacks or how to get involved with the project?

We have a Facebook page at the moment and in future, we hope to have a website. There are however a few articles that have been published online about Cool Shacks.

Do you know about any other great innovations that are playing a role in improving lives (even just a little bit) in informal settlements?

Yes, a few of my colleagues are venturing into projects that aim to improve the lives of people in the informal settlements. Ntsako Mgiba and his partners have created a community-based security solution, Jonga; the system aims to detect home intruders and alert owners, as well the community. Tuskan Owen-Thomas and Sebastian Daniels created Stokvella, a mobile platform that allows members of a stokvel savings group to track and rate their own stokvel. There are many UCT students that are creating innovative solutions that will change the continent one innovation at a time.


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