Tech Award Laureates: Solar Ear Provides Affordable Hearing Aids to Developing Countries

Businessman Howard Weinstein shed his former life, moved to Botswana, and developed a solar-powered analogue hearing aid that costs under $100–and won a Tech Award.

solar charger # 1 with cell connection


We recently looked at the Cows to Kilowatts program, one of 15 initiatives selected to be a Tech Award Laureate . But Cows to Kilowatts is far from the only innovative Tech Award winner. Another one of our favorites that uses existing technology to change humanity for the better is Solar Ear, a project developed by a former businessman named Howard Weinstein.

14 years ago, Weinstein’s daughter passed away. Immediately afterwards, he lost his job and embarked upon a soul-searching journey that eventually led him to join the Peace Corps. The Corps assigned Howard to a solar-powered hearing aid project in Botswana, but provided him with no products, no staff, and no cash. Weinstein persisted anyway, eventually mustering up enough cash and outside technological expertise to develop a solar-powered analogue hearing aid. The hearing aid costs under $100–a fifth of the price of standard models–and comes with $1 rechargeable batteries that last up to three years. An accompanying charger can either get juice from the sun or a wall socket.

Weinstein didn’t just receive the Tech Award Laureate title because of his invention. The Solar Ear project has also empowered local deaf citizens by hiring them to put together the hearing aids. “The initial idea was to show society that people with disabilities can work with world-class abilities,” Weinstein said.

For the past three years, Weinstein has been working on bringing a digital version of the solar-powered hearing aid to Brazil. Botswanan citizens who worked on the original project have been coming to Brazil to teach locals how to make the hearing aids, which will be sold throughout Latin America for $125. Thus far, Weinstein has sold over 20,00 Solar Ears in 30 countries. Not bad for a project that started out less than a decade ago with nothing.

Next up: bringing the project to Palestine, where locals will work with deaf Israeli and Jordanian youth to manufacture the Solar Ear. “This project is also a peace-building initiative,” Weinstein said.

[Solar Ear]

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.