Tendekayi Katsiga’s Deaftronics works toward equipping the hearing impaired with training, therapy and solar-powered hearing aids

Tendekayi Katsiga says he is always juggling crazy ideas. Crazy is good, for the last time electronics engineer Katsiga set to work on one, what emerged was a solar-powered hearing aid for people with hearing impairment. As Director of Deaftronics in Botswana, which manufactures these hearing aids, Katsiga says the idea was to make aid affordable to people with hearing impairment.

It all began when Katsiga came across a young hearing-impaired boy called John, who went to him seeking help to make sense of the newspaper. He learnt that John’s hearing aids were not working and he had no money to buy new batteries. “This set me thinking. Why not have rechargeable batteries?” Katsiga approached a Canadian volunteer Howard Weinstein and they arrived at a solution — to apply for a grant for making solar rechargeable hearing aids.

Cost-effective

Soon, Solar Ear was formed which started manufacture of rechargeable batteries. These cost 10 per cent less than non-rechargeable batteries and could be charged by merely leaving them out in the sun for about eight hours. They could be charged indoors as well in the light of the fluorescent lamps, or even with a cell-phone plug.

“The non-rechargeable batteries are extremely expensive for people living in developing countries, as a single battery could cost about 1 USD. And, they would have to be replaced several times,” Katsiga says. The solar batteries, on the other hand, could last for two to three years.

Growing fast

The company, which became Deaftronics in 2009, sells these affordable hearing aids to 40 African countries and it has employees who are hearing impaired. “We have been able to send at least 3,000 African children to schools,” Katsiga says. When the company was formed, he realised that there were more challenges than they had calculated. “Fifty per cent of hearing loss in Africa is because of lack of access to health facilities,” Katsiga says. Early detection and correction could help a child acquire listening and language skills. He/she can even go to school. Deaftronics’ latest project, called DREET, focuses on improving the condition of the hearing impaired in the country.

By conducting mass awareness programmes on early detection, engaging with universities and hospitals for research and advocacy, educating parents of children with hearing impairment, providing equipment (solar-powered hearing aids) and finally, therapy.

Among Deaftronics’ other projects are organising training programmes for bank employees in sign language.

Deaftronics has partnered with the National Bank of Botswana. “This will help people with hearing impairment open bank accounts,” he says.

The company has grown, with manufacturing units in Botswana, China and Brazil. In Jordan and South Africa, it has launched branches where Solar Ear is assembled. The company is also planning to open in India, Katsiga says.

The latest idea he has is to incorporate solar-powered hearing aids in caps and backpacks. “A crazy idea, right?” he asks.

Tendekayi Katsiga is an INK fellow and was in Kochi recently to deliver a talk on Solar Ear.