Introducing Solar-Powered Hearing Aids

It's a long way from Montreal to Otse, a speck of a town in the backcountry of Botswana. But Howard Weinstein, 57, is glad he made the journey. When he first arrived in this parched community of 3,500 at the edge of the Kalahari desert five years ago, the retired Canadian business executive knew it would be no holiday. All the same, Weinstein just took a deep breath; all he wanted was a place where he could put his life back together. The civic group World University Service of Canada had sent him to Otse. His mission was to set up a company that would provide affordable hearing aids to partially deaf Africans. Just one problem: in African terms there was no such thing as an affordable hearing aid. The people in Otse didn't seem able to afford much of anything at all. "My office was a single room with a couple chairs and no staff," Weinstein recalls. "We were starting from zero." It was exactly what he was looking for.

The first hurdle was technology. Back home in Canada, Weinstein had made a pile of money in the plumbing business. He could tell you everything about bushings and bidets—but he didn't know the first thing about audiology. "I didn't know a decibel from Tinkerbell," he says. Even so, he didn't need a degree in physiology to understand the scope of the problem. The World Health Organization says there are roughly 250 million hearing-impaired people around the globe, with two thirds of them living in developing nations. And yet every year fewer than 10 million hearing aids are manufactured. Why? "Batteries," says Weinstein. "They cost $1 each and last about a week." That's a prohibitive price in countries where $1 a day is often the going wage. Even if you gave away standard hearing aids, many users couldn't afford to keep them running. "Poor people in Africa, Latin America and Asia wear a hearing device until it runs down and then put it in the drawer or sell it," Weinstein says. "If you could come up with a solution, you could touch millions of lives."

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.

Just a few years ago, philanthropy was the last thing on Weinstein's mind. He'd parlayed valves and faucets into a major business, then sold it for a bundle to a Fortune 500 corporation, staying on as president. By the early 1990s he had achieved a lifestyle most people fantasize about, replete with a grand home in Montreal and a country villa with a lake out front and a ski slope for a backyard. Then one night in 1995 his world fell apart: his 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, suffered an aneurysm and died in her sleep. "I was lost," he says. He was fired, slogged through psychotherapy, started a new company, but had lost his touch and went bankrupt. "Nothing seemed to make sense anymore," he says. In 2001, when he heard about a $1,000-a-month job helping poor Africans, he jumped at it. "The Africans say the blessing lies close to the wound," he says. "I knew this was for me."

Convincing the industry was another matter. All the money in hearing devices was in catering to high-end consumers, who pay from $500 to $10,000 a pop. Getting electronics giants to go downmarket was like persuading Big Pharma to develop affordable, cutting-edge medicines to treat malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and other "diseases of the poor." But where others saw a wall, Weinstein saw a frontier. So did Sam Mok and Dan Carlson, of Sound Design Technologies, a $40 million-a-year Toronto-based company that makes the microprocessors used in major hearing-aid brands. They hasten to say they had something besides charity in mind when they recently decided to team up with Weinstein. "Let's be clear. His business model is based on people outside the mainstream economy," says Carlson, who is also helping to design and perfect a new digital hearing aid. "You may not make much money for now, but if you hang in there, these markets are so large you are bound to see the customer base grow." An argument like that could catch even the coldest-hearted investor's ear.