Globally, approximately 325 million people suffer from some degree of hearing loss. Experts estimate that helping these people comes to a lifetime cost of around $300,000 per person. The cost to society includes more than just dollar cost: it includes the potential isolating impact on entire lives. This isolation can limit professional and educational opportunities and performance.
Fortunately, in the developed world, this situation no longer applies to everyone with hearing loss. One reason is the hearing aid. While these devices do not restore all capabilities, they provide enough amplification to allow participation in day-to-day activities and interactions.
Governments have done very little to provide resources, training, job opportunities and support groups for people with hearing loss. Many nonprofit organizations have tried to fill this need for services, help, and counseling. These groups enable millions worldwide to achieve their desired quality of life.
Unfortunately, access to these benefits often does not exist in the developing world. While governments have their hands full with other issues, the poor are left behind, especially those with disabilities. For those suffering from hearing loss, hearing aids are prohibitively expensive.
Since 1991, the average cost of hearing aids has nearly quadrupled. Currently, even the cheapest models cost at least $500. These devices are also limited by batteries, which typically have to be changed weekly at the cost of $1 per replacement. For a family subsisting on $1 a day, this cost is prohibitive.
Enter Solar Ear, a sustainable social company, founded in Botswana (with additional projects in Brazil and China) by social entrepreneur Howard Weinstein and a group of workers who are deaf. Solar Ear attacked the challenge of hearing loss head on.
Solar Ear’s main product is a new, low-cost hearing aid with rechargeable batteries that use a solar-powered docking station. These products were invented by the original workers in Botswana and later modified by the workers in Brazil. The recharger, which is not much larger than a computer mouse, allows the rechargeable batteries, which cost the same as conventional batteries ($1) to last 2-3 years. The entire kit, including hearing aids, charger, and batteries, can be sold at a profit for under $100. Solar Ear has elected not to patent its products.
One of the most impressive aspects of Solar Ear’s business model is that every mini-business set up to produce the Solar Ear employs a staff composed entirely of people who are deaf. This decision creates both technical jobs and a sustainable enterprise for an often marginalized population. The quality of work and innovation produced by these employees is what drives continual success for Solar Ear.
The founders of Solar Ear continue to develop technologically. Two years ago, they realized they were providing only a partial solution. After researching and consulting with industry experts, they developed the DREET (Detection, Research, Education, Equipment, Training) methodology, which is a holistic hearing health and prevention model. At each DREET center, these methodologies and practices have proven successful as a way to lower the incidence of hearing loss. Solar Ear plans to help other independent organizations replicate their DREET and manufacturing models in other countries. All information, business practices and technologies are shared for free.
This is only the beginning for Solar Ear. With a goal of helping over 100 million people by 2020, Solar Ear is already pushing past the boundaries of what was once only dreamed of in the fight to improve the lives of people with hearing loss. They are developing a set of smartphone applications that will conduct a basic hearing test and allow the smartphone to serve as a high-quality hearing aid, facilitate maternal hearing health and even improve hearing for an individual with hearing loss. These products will be game changers in the industry and life changers for those who cannot afford a hearing aid today.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Ben Young, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.