In Botswana, solar-powered hearing aids uplift hearing impaired

Conventional hearing aids cost up to $6,000 and go through expensive batteries almost every week. The Solar Ear, on the other hand, is $300 and comes with a solar-powered battery charger.

JOHANNESBURG -- After the NGO he was working at folded, Tendekayi Katsiga landed himself a good job at Debswana, the huge diamond company formed as a partnership between Botswana and DeBeers. It seemed like fate -- working for the world's largest diamond company in the world's leading producer. But Katsiga's job left him feeling empty. His years of work with the hearing impaired had put him in contact with people with hearing loss across Botswana, people that faced seemingly intractable problems that he felt he could ease. The electrical engineer left the diamond company and helped develop an affordable solar charger for hearing aid batteries.

Now, in partnership with American businessman Howard Weinstein, Katsiga's company is helping train a workforce of hearing-impaired people across three continents to assemble and distribute the award-winning Solar Ear, a hearing aid and solar-powered battery charger meant to improve the lives of those with hearing loss in the developing world.

Katsiga said that the hearing impaired "have the potential to empower [their communities]. If given a chance, they can realize their dreams."

But all too often in places like Gaborone -- where the Solar Ear is assembled in Botswana -- the hearing impaired are left isolated from society. "Most of the deaf people in Africa are marginalized," Katsiga said. "They don't have a chance to live normal lives. Eighty percent of them live in poverty."

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The Solar Ear was designed to drastically reduce the cost of buying and maintaining a hearing aid, making it available for large numbers of people. Conventional devices usually retail for between $1,000 and $6,000, and they go through expensive batteries almost every week. A Solar Ear kit, on the other hand, consists of a hearing aid, solar charger and four rechargeable batteries for $300. The German-made batteries also last about a week, but they can be recharged from the sun for nearly three years.

Almost 10,000 of the units have been distributed across Botswana, Brazil and the West Bank. Katsiga's employees have helped train workers with hearing loss in Solar Ear assembly plants around the world. "The job market is not really for hearing-impaired people," Katsiga said, adding that Solar Ear's primary mission is to empower those with hearing loss.

The World Health Organization estimates that 360 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss. Yet only 10 percent of the global need for hearing aids is met. The WHO adds that "in developing countries, children with hearing loss and deafness rarely receive any schooling. Adults with hearing loss also have a much higher unemployment rate."

While Solar Ear can be used by anyone, the product is aimed at children. "If you give a child a hearing aid," Katsiga said, "it will give them an opportunity to participate in school."

Solar Ear chargers being soldered in Cape Town

While significantly less than most hearing aids, $300 is still a huge amount for a poor household. Solar Ear has moved to offset that cost by partnering with local NGOs and government bodies. The goal is to get the devices into the hands of the people who need it free of charge.

The latest iteration of the Solar Ear can recharge 3 batteries at once, which takes between 2-3 hours in direct sunlight. The improved charger can also operate under household light or even with a Nokia cell phone charger (one of the most common makes in poorer communities).

In hopes of driving down the cost even further, Katsiga and Weinstein have not patented the device. It's open source, available for people to make and distribute on their own.

The duo also plans to release the device in Ghana, Kenya, China and Singapore in coming years.

Photos: Courtesy Solar Ear

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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