Sir Richard Branson Provides South Africans with Free Hearing Aids

Entrepreneur billionaire Sir Richard Branson has returned from a mission to South Africa, where he and partners at the Starkey Hearing Foundation provided hundreds patients with hearing aids.

The mission, held at the Bhubezi Community Health Care Centre, is the latest in a series of annual missions that have been held for several years. This year, 300 people between the ages of 9 and 89 were fitted with free hearing aids.

In South Africa, deafness is a virtual guarantee of unemployment, as 93 percent of the country's estimated four million deaf citizens are out of work.

With between 500,000 and 600,000 speakers, South African Sign Language constitutes the country's fifth-largest language community. Still, it is not officially recognized by the government, as it is in a range of countries including Austria, Brazil, Iceland, New Zealand, Uganda and Venezuela.

"There is an enormous amount of work to be done , and Starkey is leading the way," said Branson of the charitable arm of Starkey Hearing Technologies, a leading hearing aid manufacturer.

Bill Austin, founder of the Starkey Hearing Foundation, lauded Branson's partnership with his organization.

"At the Starkey Hearing Foundation we are only as good as our partners, and we have a great one in Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Unite," he said. "Together we are reflecting caring to the people of South Africa and have empowered thousands toward a better life through the gift of hearing."

Branson and the Virgin Unite team helped build the Bhubezi Center, located in northeastern South Africa, in 2006 to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic the afflicts the region. The project also received millions of dollars in funding from the United States government and Anglo American, a mining conglomerate that created an anti-retroviral program in South Africa in 2002.

"There was no clinic for people in this area with HIV, so we created one," said Branson. "Thousands of people from the area come here to get their antiretroviral drugs and malaria and tuberculosis tablets."

Since opening its doors in April 2007, the clinic has had more than 145,000 patient visits. Bhubezi has put more than 5,900 patients on Anti-Retroviral Treatment, which helps people infected with HIV/AIDS manage the illness and reclaim a better quality of life.

"Now, thanks to the Starkey Hearing Foundation," added Branson, "there are hundreds of people in this area suffering from hearing loss who are able to hear again."

Branson also spoke highly of the partnership between Virgin Unite and the foundation.

"As an entrepreneur, I partner with people all the time; likewise, so should NGOs partner with each other, like the partnership between the Bhubezi Centre and Starkey," said Branson. "There needs to be more entrepreneurial forces like the Starkey Hearing Foundation."

After a record year of fitting more than 131,000 hearing aids to people in need, the Starkey Hearing Foundation is ahead of schedule to fit one million people with hearing aids by the close of the decade. The foundation also set a fundraising record in 2012, raising more than $7.6 million at a single event in August.