Ten years ago, while visiting a school for the deaf in Botswana, Tendekayi Katsiga discovered something alarming. Although the schools were given hearing aids by NGOs, the batteries had died after about a month and were too expensive to replace. As a result, students with hearing impediments–many of whom had never learned to read–had trouble following along in the classroom.
Finding that other schools for the deaf in rural Africa were experiencing the same problem, Katsiga founded Deaftronics and quickly went to work on a solar-powered hearing aid. Priced at $200 a unit, the hearing aid is more affordable (most other models cost at least $600) and its solar battery can last for up to three years, or 500 charges, using either sunlight or fluorescent lighting. Furthermore, Deaftronics’ batteries work with 80% of the hearing aids on the market, and the charger even equipped with a usb circuit so users can charge their phone.
“The question was not only ‘How do you provide a hearing aid?’ but ‘How do you keep a hearing aid running?'” says Katsiga. To oversee the design process, Katsiga recruited people with hearing impediments who provided feedback during several phases of prototyping. “We started working with them and they provided us with the solution–everything from how the product should look to how it should be shipped.”
The problem reaches far beyond Botswana. According to the World Health Organization, over 5% of the world’s population–360 million people–has disabling hearing loss. Since it launched in 2009, Deaftronics has sold 10,000 hearing aids across 40 African countries. The hearing aids have allowed 3,000 hearing impaired children to attend school.
In July, the company was one of 30 finalists that were asked to attend the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST Tech-I) summit, a US Department of State initiative that seeks to find impactful science and technology companies. The exposure, Katsiga hopes, will allow Deaftronics to take its technology beyond Africa, as well as expand its product line.
“We’ve realized that providing an affordable solar-powered hearing aid is not the solution to preventing hearing impairment,” says Katsiga. While still in the early stags of development, the company is also creating an mobile app that allow users to test for early signs of hearing loss.