This local guy created a device that helps deaf people ‘hear’ crucial sounds

Zuko Mandlakazi. (Photo: Supplied)
Zuko Mandlakazi. (Photo: Supplied)

A baby crying, a doorbell ringing and a fire alarm sounding.

These are all sounds that deaf people can’t pick up, but with his invention Zuko Mandlakazi (34) wants to make this a thing of the past.

It’s the first of its kind in the world. A wearable device similar to a smart watch that’s able to help deaf people identify important sounds they would otherwise miss.

The Senso device has three buttons – a power button and two that can be used to coordinate up to five different sounds with colours that flash in the form of an LED light.

“For example you can co-ordinate a doorknob with orange, a safety evacuation alarm with red or a forced entry sound with green. So when the device picks up the sound it vibrates and shows a blinking LED light that reflects the sound,” Zuko tells YOU.

The user can also set the desired vibration intensity.

“If you know you're a deep sleeper, you can set the device to a more aggressive vibration,” he adds.

The device, Zuko says, has been developed in a way that gives it an accuracy rating of between 98% and 100%.

His inventions was inspired by his deaf aunt and noticing how people communicated with her as well as his concern for her safety since she couldn’t hear what was going on around her.

As he got older, Zuko, who graduated from Walter Sisulu University, made it a point to find a device that could assist his aunt.

“I looked into devices she could possibly use and I couldn’t find one, so that was the beginning of the journey.”

In a classic case of being the change you want to see, he watched YouTube tutorial after tutorial and taught himself how to design the original interface of the device, working with a software engineer to put the electronic components together.

The first prototype was a far cry from the portable product. It was as big as an 11-inch laptop, Zuko says.

But regardless of size, the innovation was brilliant enough to catch the attention of potential investors.

“We used that to pitch to the South African Breweries Foundation and they saw the vision and supported us. Then we started fine-tuning it.”

And after many upsets since 2014, including software problems, lack of funding and going days without eating – a brainchild was born and patented in South Africa in 2016.

Zuko says to date his company, Senso, has filed patents in more than 40 countries and has been given the all-clear by the Independent Communications Authoridy of South Africa (Icasa).

“We are approved by Icasa that our device doesn’t emit electromagnetics that would in the long term cause illnesses like cancer. It also doesn’t disturb the towers that we have in South Africa,” he explains.

“We also achieved the same status in Europe and the next stage would be to test in the US because we’ve received a lot of interest there,” he adds.

Zuko says his company completed the prototype development in June and has been setting up for manufacturing since July.

“We already have a number of NGOs and government departments locally and internationally as well as private companies that have expressed interest. But we also want to make sure that the device is available for anyone who wishes to use it.”

The projected price of the device when it hits the market is about R4 500, and like many electronics, Zuko says, its lifespan would be two to three years depending on usage.

He says making it affordable and accessible to the deaf community was his aim and the company is looking to partner with entities like medical aid schemes to make it available in other ways, and to give the people who need it most options of payment arrangements.

“The people in the deaf community really kept me going when it was really tough and I feel like I’m giving them a sense of hope. I want this product to end up in the hands of the people who really need it.

“We want to make sure that we have communication. I want to use Senso to break boundaries between the deaf and the hearing communities.”

Senso has received a number of accolades since its inception, and last year Zuko was a part of the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, which offers support to grassroots social entrepreneurs.

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