Sept 2017 CAJ News Africa
In one of the most tragic incidents in South Africa’s North West province in recent memory, three teenage girls were burnt to death and 23 injured when they jumped from a building at a school for the deaf during a chilly winter morning. The death of the minors aged between 16 and 18 at the School for the Deaf in Leeudoringstad, attributed to the fact that they did not hear the evacuation alarm because of their hearing disability, sent shockwaves across the country. It has proven an inspiration to a young man, born in the most impoverished Eastern Cape, to create an invention that is set to change the lives of the deaf members of the community worldwide.
“In August 2015, I read the terrible story of three deaf pupils who died while they were sleeping at the North West School for the Deaf. The pupils didn’t hear the safety evacuation alarm because of their hearing condition,” Zuko Mandlakazi (32) said. He also recounted the ordeals of a hearing-impaired aunt. “I was always concerned whenever she visited Johannesburg and was alone in the flat when my cousins were all at work. I always asked myself, ‘what if the flat catches fire, then she doesn’t get to hear a safety evacuation alarm and it’s too late for her to smell fire smoke to exit the flat? I then started doing some research on the assistive devices and the deaf community and I learnt that there were millions of other people with the same situation as my aunt. I decided to do something about it and that’s how I ended up here.”
That has given birth to Senso (R) is a wrist wearable that connects hearing impaired with lifesaving sounds and other important sounds needed in order to manoeuvre daily lives. The product picks up sounds, communicate these sounds to the user through vibration and LED lighting. It seeks to dismantle the communication gap that exists between normal hearing people and deaf or hard of hearing people. For example, if the wrist armband detects a sound that’s important to the user, the vibration on the wrist will alert the user to a sound that corresponds to a specific colour coded LED.
“If a user programs a sound made by a child who is crying to a pink color, the wrist armband will vibrate, then the LED colour on the wrist will be pink, when the child cries,” Mandlakazi explained.
“If the user programmes the red colour to a forced entry sound, when there is a forced entry sound in the house, the wrist armband will detect it, the user will feel the vibration, the red LED colour will light up to alert the user of an intruder.”
It is inconceivable that the South African innovator who is on the cusp of global prominence with the invention that once sought refuge at a mobile laboratory to save on travelling costs to help realise his invention. Naturally, one would expect an inventor to emerge from a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics background but Zuko Mandlakazi’s tale unfolds differently as he has a background in commercial subjects. Not to mention he was only exposed to a mobile phone aged 19, growing up in the country’s most impoverished province of the Eastern Cape, he spent his entire childhood in rural settings with radio and television the closest he ever got to technology. “I hope my story serves as a testament to a young person reading this that one doesn’t have to be a scientist or come from a strong engineering background to be innovative,” the innovator stated.
The invention has been endorsed and earned him awards in such countries as Austria, Sweden and Switzerland while locally, accolades include the SAB Foundation Social Innovation Award and the Gauteng Accelerator Programme ICT Award. It also was recognised at the 2014 Social Innovation Awards. “Through the assistance by the SAB Foundation, Senso (R) has been able to produce the proof of concept, which has led to access to additional funding. This in turn ensured that they could produce prototypes, file patents and have a market-ready product,” said Mariska Henning, SAB Foundation Programme Coordinator.