22 years ago, Howard Weinstein had the odds against him. A week after the unexpected death of his daughter he was laid off by his company, all of which forced him to seriously reconsider his purpose in life. He decided to go to Botswana as a volunteer to offer his vast experience and knowledge within business management, and in the small village of Otse he found his call.
In Otse, a local NGO was experimenting with a new solar-powered hearing aid and Howard realized that deafness and hearing loss was a huge problem among underprivileged communities with little access to medicine and affordable hearing aids. Over 5% of the world’s population has disabling hearing loss. This combined with a low and expensive global supply of hearing aids, represented a strong business case for Howard. With a rechargeable battery, a solar-powered device to power it and an inexpensive hearing aid, he had the perfect hearing aid priced at a fraction of the cost of competitors’ aids. After some years of hard work and a substantial investment from the African Development Foundation, Howard set up the non-profit Solar Ear and travelled to Brazil to replicate the concept (for example only employing deaf people) and help millions of hearing impaired Brazilians.
Today, Solar Ear is a success story – a true example of how new sustainable innovation can positively impact millions of people. In 2015, Solar Ear was featured in the Sustainia100 publication, shortlisted for the Sustainia Award and elected winner in the Health category.
I had the pleasure of asking Howard a few questions about Solar Ear and its plans going forward.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when starting up Solar Ear?
Empowering our workers, who are deaf, to take control of the company and realize that this was not a charitable organization based on hand-out philosophy. If they wanted to solve the problem of the high cost of hearing aids and use rechargeable batteries then THEY would have to invent and develop the solutions.
Solar Ear has open-sourced all its designs. Why?
Our mission is to get a child a low-cost hearing aid before the age of 3, so they can learn to speak and go to a public school. We believe that you can only break the cycle of poverty through education. So, we decided not to patent the product for a number of reasons:
a) Paying the legal fees for the patent would dramatically increase the price of the product and we would then be going against our mission of low-cost products for children.
b) We wanted and still want our competitors to copy our concept and products and have their own power of distribution. This will get more low-cost products to children and adults around the world.
c) If someone broke our patent we would not have 2-3 million dollars to defend our patent – so why patent something you cannot defend?
Though reasonably prized, Solar Ear’s device is still heavy on the pockets for many poor families. Are you working on subsidy schemes or in partnership with other organizations to reach the ones most in need?
No, but we are working on a new program to make the cell phone into a hearing aid which would then make it affordable and accessible for all.
How have the biggest hearing aid companies reacted to Solar Ear?
Two of them have been very supportive, and the other three major ones do not like us. They feel that even though they are not serving or helping lower income, middle or poor people, no one else should.
After starting up in Botswana, you moved to Brazil to continue your mission. Where is your next destination?
We scaled to China three years ago and within the next eight months we will be opening in Russia, the Middle East (employing deaf Muslims, Christians and Jews), and in North America, employing deaf Native Americans.
What is your advice to other entrepreneurs with dreams of making this world a better place?
a) Listen to the stakeholders as they know the solutions.
b) Take your ego out of the equation.
c) Make sure you have the support of your spouse or partner.
d) Be patient… it is a long process.
e) Try to be as culturally sensitive as possible.
© All photos by Solar Ear