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Low Cost Hearing Aids: Solar Ear Helping Developing Countries

The holiday season is a great time for heartwarming stories, the kind that spotlight positive and meaningful impact caring people make on the lives of others. 

One such story is the one about Solar Ear, a project that brings hope to hundreds of thousands of hearing impaired people in the developing world.

Solar EarSimply put, Solar Ear is a low-cost hearing aid that gets a charge from solar-powered batteries. Not only are these hearing devices much more affordable to people in developing nations than traditional hearing aids, but they are also eco-friendly since they decrease our reliance on fossil fuel-based power and reduce toxic battery waste – a hazard to our health and to the environment.

Sun, on the other hand, provides us with millions of kilowatts of clean, safe, and cheap energy. We can’t go wrong with that, can we?

Something New Under The Sun? 

Solar-powered hearing aid batteries are not a new concept. In fact, a little over a year ago, Solar Ear’ s founder, Howard Weinstein, told Healthy Hearing about his efforts to bring affordable and environmentally-friendly batteries to hearing impaired people in poorer nations, where the need is the most dire.

About 278 million people worldwide are estimated to have moderate-to-profound hearing loss in both ears. Most of them live in developing countries, with no access to the same technology people in industrialized nations enjoy (and often take for granted). 

World Health Organization estimates that more than 30 million hearing aids are needed annually in those nations, but current annual provision is less than 1 million.  As a result, only a tiny fraction of the hearing impaired people living in poor countries wear hearing aids. And that’s where Weinstein has made a world of difference.

While working in the Peace Corps 15 years ago, Weinstein, a former plumber from Montreal, was assigned to a solar power hearing aid project in Bostwana, which had become known as Godisa Technologies.

With no products, staff or funding, he managed to raise enough money and found technological expertise to develop a solar-powered hearing aid costing $100 - a fifth of the price of standard models. The “Solar Ear” device comes with $1 rechargeable batteries that last up to three years. An accompanying charger can either get power from the sun or a wall outlet.

Solar Ear ChargerThe concept was so novel that in 2009 Solar Aid won Weinstein the Tech Award Laureate title, an international program that honors innovators who are applying technology to benefit humanity. A year before, he was awarded the Humanitarian Award from the American Academy of Audiology.

And, Weinstein went a step farther by hiring deaf workers, a move which he sees as a key to the project’s success. “They are able to manufacture at a world-class level, in part because they are deaf. People who are deaf and speak in sign language have a better hand-eye coordination than hearing people,” he told us last year. “We need this special ability to micro-solder the tiny components for a hearing aid.”

At that time, Weinstein, who now operates out of Brazil, hoped to take Solar Aid to Jordan, allowing him to reach the entire Middle East. Now, that project is ready to take off.

A Mission Of Peace

“We are fully funded to start the first Solar Ear program in the Middle-East where we will be hiring deaf Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian youths who will work together,” he reports. “We have the stakeholders, management staff and money in place, allowing us to start the training in January 2011.”

The fact that this volatile region was chosen for the Solar Aid project is not accidental.  “We went there because of the peace building social mission, which we love,” Weinstein says. “We will also open in the future in the Balkans and Kashmir. Why not achieve all of our missions and help as many people as possible to get a low-cost rechargeable hearing aid PLUS set an example of people from conflict zones working together? Let society hear the sounds of peace from workers who are deaf!”

As the Middle Eastern project is ready to take off, Solar Ear is now developing a solar-powered, body-worn hearing aid with a game, which will sell for under $20 and use micro-entrepreneurs to sell this device in the developing world.

Innovative Approach

Weinstein points out a sad statistic: in wealthy nations, there is one audiologist for every 20,000 people. In poorer countries, one audiologist serves 2-6 million people. In order to close that gap, new products and distribution models must be developed, he says.

In conjunction with an NGO, Design That Matters, a nonprofit based in Cambridge MA, Solar Ear will develop three solar-powered, body-worn hearing aids.

 “Just think of reading glasses one can buy at a pharmacy,” he explains. “We will do the same with hearing aids. In developing countries there already are over 300,000 micro-entrepreneurs who are selling a variety of products and services - eye tests, blood pressure tests, etc.  We are also working with a wonderful German company, Path Medical, which has developed a language neutral hearing screening test. This instrument is also perfect for micro-entrepreneurs, as results will indicate which hearing aid the person needs, and or if the person must visit a professional as the test results show a more severe problem.”

An Ambitious Project

It goes without saying that such a far-reaching project needs funding to keep going and reaching an increasing number of people.  Fortunately, Weinstein has been able to raise money enabling him to develop and expand the Solar Ear concept.

The funds – about 15 million - will come from G8 countries and other stakeholders, making it possible for Weinstein to implement the new sustainable program, which will eventually become self-funded.

His goals are both ambitious and praiseworthy: “We have increased our focus from just making inexpensive hearing aids to lowering hearing impairment to 30 million people and the burden to 100 million people in developing countries,” he says.

It looks like Solar Ear is ready for the challenge: Weinstein predicts that because of expansion into new markets such as the Middle East and China, by the end of next year, the program will have sold over 200,000 hearing aids and 500,000 chargers. That’s a big jump from last year’s numbers - 10,000 hearing aids, 20,000 solar chargers, and  40,000 rechargeable hearing aid batteries.

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