Researchers develop a $50 headset to bring hearing help to children in the Third World

Tone Berg wears the demonstration model of the headset developed by SINTEF.
Tone Berg wears a demonstration model of the headset that she and other researchers at SINTEF devised.

TRONDHEIM, NORWAY—Only a tiny percentage of people with hearing loss in the Third World have any hope of getting help for their condition. That has been true for as long as hearing aids have been around. However, there are more and more non-profit organizations seeking to develop new technologies to change that situation.

Among them is Norway-based SINTEF, the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia. SINTEF is working to come up with a basic, inexpensive hearing aid that can be customized to fit a child’s particular hearing loss. The researchers hope to simplify the fitting process sufficiently to eliminate the need for a physician, audiologist, or other specialist to be involved. Currently, the cost and complications of getting help discourage many poor families from seeking assistance for a child with hearing loss.

Tone Berg, the SINTEF researcher who initiated the hearing aid project, explained, “For many families living in rural villages in countries like Kenya, a journey to the capital city to see an ear doctor is a huge financial burden that can cost more than the hearing aid.”

Berg and her colleagues came up with the concept of integrating the hearing test, the adjustment process, and the hearing aid itself into a single headset. Now, with help from the company Auristronic AS, that idea has become a reality, and the researchers have a demonstration model containing all the electronics needed to support school-age children in their local communities. The essential technology fits onto a single 5×5- mm microchip.

Berg envisages having local teachers trained to adjust the equipment, using smart phones. She expects to get the production cost of the headsets down to 300 Norwegian krone or about $50, which she says would make them “a realistic solution.”

Tone Øderud, who also works with SINTEF, has been finding ways to provide hearing aids to disabled people in sub-Saharan Africa for many years. Her success in teaching local people in Namibia and Zimbabwe to repair and adapt hearing aids makes her optimistic about SINTEF’s new hearing aid project.

Øderud said, “We hope that our experience of training local people and the network that we have built up through our activities will now help us to make the hearing aid project a reality.”



Tendekayi Katsiga
Tendekayi Katsiga

GABORONE, BOTSWANA—Elsewhere in Africa, Deaftronics, a non-profit organization, is tackling another hearing aid cost issue: finding an affordable power source.

Tendekayi Katsiga, founder and CEO of the Botswanan company, was inspired by a 2009 encounter with a boy who had a hearing aid but couldn’t hear because the batteries cost too much to replace. That experience motivated the electronics expert and social entrepreneur to develop Solar Ear, a solar-powered hearing aid.

Its batteries, which need recharging every few days, last two to three years. According to Katsiga, the Solar Ear costs $200, including the batteries and the charger, which charges three batteries at a time. More than 10,000 Solar Ears have been dispensed in Africa.

Solar Ears
Solar Ears

Deaftronics is a non-profit organization that relies on donor grants.

1 Comment

  1. Well, these are good moves, but I don’t think they are optimum. The dollar prices are too high for people who only get a few $ a day, if that. Also, it looks as though the products have to be made in the West or China – why not in the countries they are to be used in? To do that, use more traditional techniques, like separate transistors instead of microchips, analogue circuits instead of digital etc. Labour costs are low in those countries, and the skills learned would help to bring people out of poverty.

    Also, I’m not at all sure that needing teachers to adjust things using smart phones is necessary. That is probably controversial, but people don’t have teachers and smart phones to adjust the tone controls on their hi-fi, so why can’t we trust them to adjust similar controls on their assisted hearing devices?

    I don’t see why a hearing aid shouldn’t have its own solar battery, so no separate charger is needed. Of course, it wouldn’t be as microscopic as the current stupid fashion demands, but a larger product could also have more air-to-air gain, which would be an advantage anyway.

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