When the sun is shining, 17-year-old Tapiwa Mtisi likes to sit outside and read romance novels while she waits for her Solar Ear to charge.
The little device, the world’s first rechargeable hearing aid battery charger, is Tapiwa’s chance at a new beginning.
“I was 11 when I got my first hearing aid,” she recalls. “I was very happy. I started to hear properly. But it was a problem when the batteries were finished and I couldn’t hear.”
Like many children in Zimbabwe, Tapiwa suffers from hearing loss. Before she got the Solar Ear, she struggled in school. Even sitting at the front of the classroom, she strained to hear the teacher and was failing classes. Many hearing-impaired students like Tapiwa find it challenging to learn or participate in school activities simply because they can’t afford to put new batteries in their hearing aids. Some drop out of school altogether.
“People would rather buy bread than batteries,” says Tendekayi Katsiga, the Director of Operations of Deaftronics, which developed the Solar Ear unit. “I also realized that most of the students couldn’t read. They were left out in everything.”
Deaftronics developed a battery charger that lasts for 2 to 3 years and was made to meet the needs of communities without regular access to electricity. The solar-powered charger can be charged by the sun, household light or a cellphone plug. Deaftronics also produced a Solar Ear low-cost unit, which includes the battery charger, rechargeable batteries and a hearing aid.
Today, more than 2,000 Solar Ear units have been distributed in Zimbabwe through Mercy Corps and the Nzeve Deaf Children’s Center in Mutare, Zimbabwe. The centre works closely with Katsiga, who introduced his invention there to make sure that children like Tapiwa would be able to attend classes and learn, in spite of their hearing impairment.
Today the low-cost technology is reaching even more African children, with 10,000 units distributed throughout the continent. The company has now trained others in Brazil and Jordan on the technology, and the product is being sold in at least 40 African countries.
“Our main focus is for Zimbabwe to become the centre of knowledge in Africa in innovation design for better hearing devices,” says Katsiga. “Africa is hearing again.”