Health post: Solar-powered hearing aids

I went to the offices of the “Botswana Innovation Hub” to meet with Deaftronics, the only local medical device start-up I’ve found in Botswana. Deaftronics makes the “Solar Ear” unit, a solar-powered charger for hearing aids. The small, handheld device has a solar panel and a port for a digital hearing aid as well as ports for rechargeable hearing aid batteries. In 3 hours of sun exposure, the unit can fully charge the batteries, which can be used for up to a week without needing to be charged again.

The Solar Ear unit with space for a standard hearing aid and two rechargeable hearing aid batteries.

Deaftronics’s mission is to provide hearing aids to all hearing-impaired people who need them, including people living in remote areas without consistent access to electricity. They emphasize empowerment of the deaf community not just by providing solar-powered hearing aids, but also by training and employing deaf people in their manufacturing and design processes.

Tendekayi Katsiga, the technical director of Deaftronics, is a firm proponent of co-design (participatory, user-based design) and believes that the best solutions come from the users. He told me that the idea of solar-powered hearing aids came from a school for the deaf in Botswana and that his role as the electronics engineer was to transform that idea into a product. For any sustainable project, he said, the process of “iteration and ideation” is key – improving upon the design of a product multiple times until it is exactly what the end users need and want.

Tendekayi Katsiga with the device (the hearing aid is inserted for charging here).

In addition to the benefits of co-design, combating stigma is a great reason to employ deaf people, said Tendekayi. There is a stigma that hearing-impaired people cannot work or be productive, and Tendekayi believes that it’s important to highlight that the opposite is true – hearing-impaired people might even be more productive than the average hearing employee, he said, because they can focus on the work with fewer distractions. (It’s certainly a controversial idea, but an interesting change from the usual underestimation of the abilities of hearing-impaired people. I couldn’t find a ton of backing for this, but this book and some other articles support the idea).

Tendekayi mentioned that a challenge of selling the Solar Ear in Botswana is that the government can afford hearing aids and batteries for the few hearing-impaired members of its small population. Very few people would opt to purchase a private product when they can get something from the government for free – and since the government is such a large force in Botswana, it is hard to be a private business there. This moment reminded me of the health worker’s complaint in Sekhutlane that the government spoon-feeds its citizens too much. He believed that if Botswana’s government didn’t provide so many services for free, more people would be motivated to work as well as spend money, thus stimulating the economy.

Thus while some people are using the Solar Ear unit in Botswana, Deaftronics is focusing on potential users in places where it can have more impact: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and other areas in sub-Saharan Africa where hearing-impaired people cannot get aids from their governments or purchase more expensive options. Deaftronics has been endorsed by UNICEF, which could pave a pathway for providing Solar Ear units for free in such areas. In future designs, Deaftronics hopes to add a USB port to its Solar Ear unit so that users can also charge their cellphones via the device.

Entrance to the Botswana Innovation Hub.

When I asked him why Deaftronics seems to be the only medical device start-up in Botswana, Tendekayi told me about another complicating local factor: the people of Botswana don’t believe in Botswana-made products. I’ve heard this a few times now, and it’s taught me the importance of local inspiration. Almost everything used in Botswana is imported from South Africa or further abroad. Botswana’s population is small; no great innovations, products, or companies have originated in the country. Of course, that doesn’t mean that great things cannot come from Botswana, but it isn’t exactly inspiring for Botswana’s citizens.

In America, we grow up with incredible success stories of companies like Ford Motors and Facebook as well as examples of revered entrepreneurs and so-called visionaries. These stories inspire generation after generation to keep building, to keep dreaming, and to keep trying, even after many failures. Part of this is due to the large population of the US; if there is a large enough number of start-ups, even if each has a very low chance of success, some of them will make it big. Representation matters: it’s hard to be inspired to make something in your country if there are no success stories to look up to.

I’ve heard this from a few Batswana now, and Tendekayi phrased it well – there’s a perception that when a product is home-grown or designed locally, it’s not the “real thing.” Now that Deaftronics has won a few awards, Tendekayi is confident that the perception will change. Especially with the establishment of the Botswana Innovation Hub, Tendekayi hopes that more Batswana will be inspired to innovate locally.

A rendering of the soon-to-be “Botswana Innovation Hub” – the space is moving to a completely new location to serve as a true hub for budding companies in Gaborone. (From this article).