Eyeglasses for the working poor
It’s easier to see where you’re going, on the road and in life, when you can actually see. In poor and remote regions of the world, it’s estimated that some two billion people need glasses but don’t have access to them, cutting their ability to learn, work and live a full life. VisionSpring is pooling with the non-governmental organisation BRAC in Bangladesh to provide durable, attractive, affordable eyeglasses to 600,000 low-income individuals.
2.5 billion people around the world need eyeglasses. Of these, 624 million are deemed visually impaired without them and 80% live in less developed countries and do not have access to them.
This is by far an affliction long overlooked in the lists of public health priorities. Visual impairment is much more than just a health problem though. It has economic, educational and public safety implications. A simple pair of eyeglasses can make the difference between working and not working: without the ability to focus up close, mechanics, barbers, tailors, teachers, artisans, and many others whose work requires clear near vision, lose years of income-earning potential.
The most common loss of visual acuity is presbyopia, the natural process of eye aging. In Bangladesh, it affects roughly one-third of adults over the age of 35, some 16 million people. A simple, cost-effective 700-year old technology can solve their problem: reading glasses that correct near vision and which can be produced for $1.50.
In 2006, VisionSpring - a social enterprise founded by optometrist Jordan Kassalow - and BRAC pooled their resources in Bangladesh to provide reading glasses to resolve uncorrected presbyopia at low cost for the working poor in the country. Over 6 million people in 61 districts have been screened, and 1.4 million have received affordable locally-sourced eyeglasses since the beginning of the programme, called Reading Glasses for Improved Livelihoods.
Part of the VisionSpring strategy is to train and equip BRAC’s network of community health workers with the tools they need to carry out basic vision screenings, refer patients for advanced care or cataract surgery, and sell low-cost reading glasses - on average the price is one to two-days wages. This approach creates businesses that generate jobs while addressing an important health need. This not only ensures that basic and affordable eye care is available at community level, but also improves the livelihoods of the community overall. What’s more the community health workers receive commission for each pair they sell which enhances their livelihoods as well.
“If you’re just giving something away, you don’t have the market as a mechanism to determine whether or not the consumer really wants your product, whereas when you ask the consumer to pay, you know clearly where that person places value.
Also, if you don’t develop the capacity of local communities to devise their own ongoing enterprises that provide glasses or shoes or other needed products, then as soon as the company that is donating these products goes away, the products go away as well. By creating a company that’s more locally owned and market driven, you increase the chance of having the solution embedded sustainably in the community.”
Our three-year grant is expected to allow:
- Over 3,700,000 people to receive free basic vision screenings,
- Over 600,000 low-income adults to access and purchase eyeglasses, generating $134M in increased earnings (research shows that eyeglasses have the potential to boost worker productivity by 35% and monthly income by 20%).
Reading Glasses for Improved Livelihoods has become the backbone of vision access in Bangladesh and the largest single source of reading glasses in the country. Our support serves as a foundation upon which VisionSpring is iterating its operating model to increase reach and efficiency.