VisionSpring: India Making a difference towards presbyopia
VisionSpring India, a non-profit organisation has started its distribution model for rural India, in order to provide reading glasses to those with presbyopia, at affordable rates. Shivani Mody takes a look at how this initiative has helped the rural population in the country.
In India, about 25 crore people are estimated to suffer from presbyopia of which nearly 18 crore are from rural India. Presbyopia, though not much of an issue in urban India, is a major issue in rural India. VisionSpring India was launched in Hyderabad, in 2005.
Today, the organisation provides eyesight to thousands of weavers, tailors, carpenters, farmers, goldsmiths and mechanics in Indian villages suffering from presbyopia and enables them to continue with their occupation. Also, apart from solving the problem of presbyopia, this NGO with its business model, creates employment opportunities for low-income men and women in the villages.
Earning applauds for its work, VisionSpring (formerly Scojo Foundation), founded by Dr Jordan Kassalow, has been bestowed upon Fast Company/Monitor Group Social Capitalist Award thrice. This US-headquartered organisation has also won the Skoll Award for social entrepreneurship in 2009, and the CASE Award for enterprising social innovation in 2010.
Making inroads in rural India
VisionSpring’s first work in India began with a pilot grant from George Soros’ Open Society Institute and the LV Prasad Eye Institute in 2001. In 2005, after several years of focus in Latin America, VisionSpring officially started its Indian office in Hyderabad. Today, it works with an array of local partners, including BASIX, Development Alternatives and Drishtee. Its strategic eye care partners include LV Prasad Eye Institute and Vision 2020 India. VisionSpring glasses are also available to the low-income urban customers at Apollo Pharmacies.
Arunesh Singh, Regional Director- Asia, VisionSpring India says, “By providing working eyeglasses – a simple, inexpensive product – the rural population will be able to carry out their daily functions and not lose their livelihoods.” In ensuring that its eyeglasses reach the interiors of the country, VisionSpring uses three innovative distribution channels. Also, collaborating with some of the known NGOs and the innovative base-of-the-pyramid organisations, VisionSpring provides sustainable jobs and access to vision care in the poorest and most remote communities.
VisionSpring India is home to the largest direct network of vision entrepreneurs (VEs) as well as the centre for South Asian franchise and wholesale partnerships. In India, it has presence in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Maharastra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.
Working business model
VisionSpring trains low-income men and women as VEs and equips them with ‘business-in-a-bag’ to start their own small businesses selling affordable working eyeglasses and other eye care products. This group of social entrepreneurs is responsible for reaching out to the innermost areas of rural India. Each VE is in-charge of 20 villages, which covers a population of 50,000. The close proximity of the VEs to villagers also helps the latter to contact VEs if there is any issue with the glasses.
The VEs are given three days, which allows them to sell affordable working eyeglasses and refer those requiring more advanced eye care to reputable eye clinics. Moreover, the VEs also have to wear the branded VisionSpring uniforms and identity cards, carry professional eye charts and letters of credibility from the government and health officials, while working on the field.
The direct sales channel empowers entrepreneurs in the rural areas to responsibly sell working eyeglasses. Currently, VisionSpring has operations in Mahbubnagar, Prakasam, West Godavari andEast Godavari districts. It also conducts around 60,000 vision screenings per annum for presbyopia in Andhra Pradesh alone.
Singh informs, “The cost of these glasses is $ 40-60, which is unaffordable for rural citizens. Our models make a pair of reading eyeglasses available for Rs 180, while a VE can earn upto Rs 40-50 per sale. Otherwise, people have to travel long distances to buy these eyeglasses, which is a time consuming and expensive affair.”
Through the CSR route
Many corporates in the country are now increasingly focussing on corporate social responsibility (CSR). Some of them are also working with VisionSpring, as part of their CSR activity. For instance, Vedanta Resources, one of the leading metals and mining groups, has developed a network of Community Health Workers (CHWs) to provide basic health services in villages where miners reside. In partnership with VisionSpring, Vedanta has provided training and support to more than 60 CHWs to conduct vision screenings and sell eyeglasses in villages surrounding many of its mine locations.
VisionSpring’s direct sales model in India offers the potential for further R&D to test new products, sales & marketing innovations and impact frameworks. There has been a growing interest in the development of products and services for the base-of-the-pyramid markets. Despite the rise in interest, there have been negligible studies to quantify the impact of such projects on the lives of those who live on less than $ 4 per day. Pioneering in this area, the NGO is currently working with the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business to develop an impact assessment framework for base-of-the-pyramid initiatives. “By studying the impact and sharing the knowledge, we can lay out a framework for further initiatives. This general approach will be a catalyst in solving some of the issues that are obstacles in the growth of the developing markets,” mentions Singh.
Working with the William Davidson Institute (University of Michigan), VisionSpring is also studying the impact of its work on the lives of its customers and VEs.
Product and service expansion
In partnership with USAID and the LV Prasad Eye Institute, VisionSpring is piloting the expansion of its services to include vision screenings and eye care referrals for children. As part of the pilot, VisionSpring will develop a line of ready made distance vision glasses for adults and children in Andhra Pradesh. Also in Guatemala, the NGO is doing pilots with the U-Specs (Universal Spectacles) – spectacles that the user can self-adjust without supervision from an optometrist or ophthalmologist. On successful completion of the pilot, it can be implemented in India as well.
In the next three years, VisionSpring plans to scale up its operations in six states in the country. “In Andhra Pradesh, we have a network of 150 VEs, but this model needs to be replicated in major states in India to see benefits. With a wider reach of our model, villagers will have better employment opportunities,” elaborates Singh.
Other than providing affordable eyeglasses in rural India, the NGO also plans to scale up work for its referral programme. “Eye care is limited in rural India. Also, these people do not have access to good facilities, which leads to increasing cases of blindness among the villagers. We want to increase the number of eye camps and scale up the referral process to report major eye problems,” he concludes.