Raising the Alarm

Published 9 years ago

In March 2012, a young family’s peaceful sleep turned into a harrowing experience when burglars broke into their home in Tembisa, a crime-ridden township on the East Rand of Johannesburg. At 2AM, the family woke up to the noise of the intruders looting their belongings. The father was stabbed several times before the assailants turned their attention to the teenage girl, attempting to rape her.

No arrests were made, resulting in the community living in fear.

Thuli Mthethwa, a software developer turned entrepreneur, was devastated when she received the news hours later about what had happened to the family of her 36-year-old sister, Thembi Nonyane.


“If my younger sister had something to protect her, a simple panic button, surely the neighbors could have been alerted and rushed in to help,” says  Mthethwa.

A few days after the break-in, a traumatized Mthethwa became more frustrated when she could not find a security company with a reasonable alarm system she could instal in her sister’s home. Mthethwa says she realized the harsh fact that only the rich could afford home security.

“The cheapest was a R430 ($35) monthly subscription on top of the installation that costs about R7,000 ($565),” says Mthethwa about alarm systems available in the market.

The moment of becoming the change that you want to see struck Mthethwa. She quit her fulltime job as a software developer and took it upon herself to conceptualize and design cheaper alarms to help curb crime. After a year of consultation and negotiations for a government subsidy, the first personalized panic buttons were made available in 2013, and later followed by home alarms.


This experience led to the birth of the Memeza Home Community Alarm system, the first public alarm system in South Africa connecting a household to the nearest police station and community policing sector. The system also allows  integration with a private security company and can be configured to as many people as possible, sending text messages to their cellphones.

“Following a year’s intense research for an affordable alarm system, the Memeza Home Security System concept was born. Initially, I couldn’t sleep, I could not rest. It bothered me that we are in a free country but we are still feeling unsafe in our homes. If my sister had an alarm in her house, the crime could have been prevented,” says Mthethwa.

Business Against Crime South Africa, a nationwide organization established in 1996 after former president Nelson Mandela called on businesses to join government in fighting crime, bought into Mthethwa’s concept and approved the system.

The installation of Memeza’s system costs a household under R1,000 ($80), a once-off payment. Memeza is currently operating as a non-governmental organization with a budget of over R1.2 million ($96,000) from the South African National Lottery. The company has 10 staff and is using Mthethwa’s home as an office.


In February 2015, a pilot project consisting of 600 alarm units began in the township of Diepsloot. The Diepsloot police station welcomed the program to help reduce the high crime rate in the area notorious for murder and house break-ins.

The South African Police Services crime statistics shows that the number of home invasions remains at an alarmingly high rate, with a total of 6,336 reported in the Gauteng province in 2014. Mthethwa says a thorough introduction of Memeza alarms will reduce household intrusion and violence on women by up to 90%.

“The uniqueness of this is it is the first alarm system in Africa which the owner doesn’t need to pay a monthly instalment. You only need airtime for the device to text police when it is required. As little as R5 airtime would be sufficient for a month and the system has a back-up battery when the power is off,” says Mthethwa.

Mthethwa’s journey started with a leap of faith. In 2012, she entered a competition funded by the SAB Foundation looking for budding entrepreneurs with social innovation concepts in the country. Mthethwa’s project placed fourth and she won R250,000 ($20,000) to finance the implementation of her business. She was also entered into a five-month mentorship program.


A year later, Mthethwa was trained at the Innovation Hub in Pretoria, where she was afforded an office space and a full-time mentor for a year.

Mthethwa also works with community policing forums distributing thousands of personalized panic buttons to women and girls in poor communities for free. This is one of Memeza’s community building projects.

From software to alarms, Mthethwa used technology for social service. Thanks to her, the communities she serves sleep easier now.