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Solar-Powered Success for Hearing-Impaired in South Africa

Maloon, Deborah

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000418203.34523.dd

Dr. Maloon is an audiologist in Vancouver, British Columbia.



My husband and I were fortunate to take a six-month sabbatical that ended this past March. We wanted to volunteer and give back to South Africa where we got our start and education. I also wanted to remain involved with the hearing impaired as an audiologist.

I came across a company called Solar Ear, which manufactures hearing aids and solar-powered battery chargers for them. (Figure.) Solar Ear is a part of Godisa Technologies, a small nonprofit organization that developed but did not patent a solar-powered battery charger in Botswana in 2002. (See FastLinks.) Godisa stopped producing there in 2007, and one of the managers re-established the manufacturing plant in Brazil. The primary goal of my sabbatical, outside of volunteering, was to establish a manufacturing plant in South Africa.

I started, after consulting with my colleagues, the less complex production of solar-powered battery chargers and rechargeable batteries only and not hearing aids. Solar Ear products used in Africa are currently sent from Brazil. The price of and accessibility to hearing aid batteries in developing countries is a big problem. A standard size 13 or 675 battery, which is used in 95 percent of all behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids, costs $1 to $1.20 and lasts about one week. This cost is unaffordable in developing countries where most people earn $1.25 to $2.50 per day.

The World Health Organization in its 2004 report on the problems of dealing with hearing loss and hearing aids in developing countries recommended using rechargeable batteries. (See FastLinks.) The Godisa Botswana project developed the first low-cost, rechargeable batteries, sizes 13 and 675, that cost about $2.50, and last two to three years.

Gas and transportation is another insurmountable problem throughout Africa, making accessibility an issue, and batteries can generally be found only in major cities. The rechargeable batteries and solar charger can be used with about 90 percent of BTEs sold by multinational hearing aid manufacturers.

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The solar-powered charger is the size of a small transistor radio, and it can be placed next to a window that receives ample sunlight. The sun charges two AA rechargeable batteries through a solar cell on the charger's top. It takes about six to eight hours to charge the batteries fully, and they hold their power for a week. The user can charge the batteries once or twice a week and up to 300 times. The charge's duration and frequency depends on the power of the hearing aid and amount of use.

The batteries are environmentally friendly, which is important considering that 200 million disposable batteries are thrown away annually. The manufacturing of the chargers also provide employment to residents, including the hearing impaired and physically disabled, who are often unemployable in developing countries. Educating people, for example on HIV/AIDS, will not be beneficial unless they have a sense of self-worth. A reason to live, a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of self-empowerment are motivating factors to lead and maintain a healthy lifestyle. By providing residents with a skill set, which increased their self-esteem, the HIV rate decreased to 10 percent versus the national average of 38 percent through HIV/AIDS education. Many people are becoming economically independent because of ongoing hearing aid use through affordable batteries. Children also have a chance at learning language, reading, and writing, which are basic human rights.

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I was thrilled to announce at the end of our sabbatical that I had a champion for the production of solar-powered hearing aid battery chargers in the Western Cape, South Africa, through the National Institute for the Deaf in Worcester, a nonprofit organization. (See FastLinks.) Their mission and vision is “to develop the full potential of each person with hearing loss” and to “empower all persons with hearing loss to achieve their full potential through education, development, training, social services, and spiritual care.” Their mission is in line with what our project would provide.

NID's chief executive officer of many years, Deon de Villiers, and his staff gave me a full enthusiastic commitment to proceed with the chargers production as one of their fully registered private college programs. Mr. de Villiers even committed NID to cover the expenses of the raw materials necessary for the first 500 chargers. We need further funding for the workshop's setup, which will include specialized equipment that five to eight deaf college students will use to manufacture the chargers. Training these students and teachers by a certified microelectronic technician on production is also needed.

This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I know it sounds cliché, but it is true that one receives far more than one gives when volunteering. I will continue to be involved and act as a liaison in different areas during the next few years.

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