Chapter 5 described Essilor’s BOP venture to sell eyeglasses to the rural poor in India, which has not succeeded so far. Another approach to solving the vision problem emphasizes technological innovation to provide low-cost self-adjustable eyeglasses, which let untrained wearers set the right focus for the lenses themselves in less than a minute, greatly reducing the need for trained optom- etrists.27 The problem is that these eyeglasses now cost more than $15 per pair and are too expensive for the poor. This might be a feasible solution in the future if technological changes and economies of scale can dramatically reduce costs.
VisionSpring is a good example of social entrepreneurship, and has won several awards for its efforts. VisionSpring was founded in 2001 by Jordan Kassalow and Scott Berrie as a non-profit organization with the mission “to reduce poverty and generate opportunity in the developing world through the sale of affordable eyeglasses.” VisionSpring started by providing only readymade reading glasses to correct farsightedness. This strategy was adopted because of the strong link between poor near vision and economic productivity and the fact that presbyopia represented about 75 percent of the visual impairment problem; this was the simplest “low lying fruit” portion of the overall problem. Its objective was to take reading glasses out of the exclusive hands of eye care professionals and make them a consumer product. In the developed countries, this shift had already happened decades ago and reading glasses are widely available as an over-the-counter product.
To accomplish its mission, VisionSpring developed an innovative business model to provide basic screening services and ready-made reading eyeglasses to people living in rural villages. After assessing multiple suppliers around the world, management decided that China was the most cost-effective source for readymade reading eyeglasses. To reach people living in rural communities, VisionSpring trains local women as Vision Entrepreneurs, who are independent commissioned sales representatives that go into villages and sell its reading glasses for under $4 a pair. Vision
Entrepreneurs provide basic screenings using distance and near eye charts to determine the appropriate strength of the lenses. VisionSpring provides them with a “business in a bag,” a sales kit containing an inventory of reading glasses, screening tools, marketing materials, and a uniform. Vision Entrepreneurs undergo a three-day training program in basic eye care and business management.
To increase its global reach and scale, VisionSpring has also developed a franchise model on a fee-for-service basis. This involves disseminating its sales kits to other nonprofit and for- profit organizations, such as BRAC, a microcredit organization in Bangladesh. Through this franchise model, VisionSpring presently has over 5,000 Vision Entrepreneurs in 11 countries.
Finally, using a wholesale approach, VisionSpring distributes its reading glasses through pharmacies in urban and periurban centers. These retail outlets are expected to help VisionSpring reach a greater breadth of people. They are presently testing this approach with Apollo, one of the largest pharmacy chains in India.