Newsweek has an interview with Howard Weinstein, the designer of the SolarAid. He talks about the hurdles he faced when trying to get it into production and how he hopes it will help bring better hearing to Africa:
Weinstein knew what he had to do: change the business model. Drawing on his years in the corporate bunker, he started working the phones, chatting up financiers, consulting with electronics wizards and haggling with manufacturers. He landed a small grant from the U.S. government-run African Development Foundation and, with help from some dedicated electronics geeks and industry execs willing to forgo their usual profits, came up with something new: a cheap hearing aid powered by rechargeable solar batteries. It looked ordinary enough—just a cashew-shaped piece of plastic to tuck behind the ear—but it cost less than $100, a fifth the price of the cheapest retail model. Rechargeable batteries, $1 apiece, last two to three years. None of this was much use without a reliable power source, so he also built a pocket-size recharger that can either plug into a wall outlet or use its own built-in solar panel.
Weinstein has tapped into another source of underused energy: deaf people. “Because mastering sign language takes acute hand-eye coordination, deaf people are well suited to the fine soldering and microelectronics that go into making hearing aids,” he says. Today the once empty room in the African semi desert has become the hub of a thriving nonprofit business. Some 20,000 people in 30 countries are using SolarAid brand hearing aids, chargers and batteries. With funding from the Ashoka Foundation and the Oregon-based Lemelson Foundation, Weinstein is working with engineers from the University of São Paulo on a second-generation, digital hearing aid. He sees Brazil as a beachhead for all of Latin America; he plans to set up another nonprofit company in Jordan to reach the entire Middle East. Then he’ll take on China and India. All told, he hopes to employ 1,000 deaf people over the next three to five years.