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Making Clear Vision Possible for the Poor

by Tan Sher Lynn

You and I probably won’t have to think twice about changing our glasses if our optical power changes, or even just for the sake of fashion. But do you know that 2.5 billion people – which is one-third of the world’s population – have no access to glasses?

Eyeglasses are a low-cost, high-impact intervention that boost earning potential, learning outcomes, road safety and overall quality of life. Yet, despite the fact that eyeglasses are a 700-year-old technology, many low-income individuals at the base of the economic pyramid do not have access to them. Therefore, VisionSpring, a social enterprise founded in 2001 by eye doctor Dr. Jordan Kassalow, aims to address this issue by delivering affordable spectacles and vision care where they’re needed the most.

A Business Model that Changes Community

“VisionSpring works to accelerate the diffusion of eyeglasses to those who need them the most. We firmly believe that by democratizing vision and bridging the gap between those who have clear vision and those who don’t, we can change the world,” said Dr. Kassalow.

According to Kassalow, 2.5 billion people need eyeglasses and 624 million are visually impaired, costing the global economy an estimated $227 billion each year. In short, this problem is too big to be solved with just charity and philanthropic giving.

“A problem this big requires market-based solutions. The people we serve are our customers, not beneficiaries. People who earn less than $4 per day will pay 1 to 2 days wages for eyeglasses. They have purchasing power and will invest in their ability to see clearly, to keep working, care for their families, etc.,” continued Dr. Kassalow. “We work to ensure that first-time vision screening and eyeglasses reach all those billions who need them, regardless of location or means. Our business model enables us to provide these individuals with vision screenings and glasses at subsidized prices, if they aren’t sponsored entirely.”

Since 2001, the company has created over $1 billion in global economic impact through their work to provide glasses to children and those earning less than $4 per day to address uncorrected refractive error.

“VisionSpring is not the traditional non-profit organization, but rather a social enterprise which adopts a blended model that enables it to be supported by a combination of revenue-generating business streams (25%) and philanthropic investment (75%),” he explained.

“We do not aim to be a 100 percent self-sustaining model; we pair philanthropic dollars with earned revenue to most effectively increase access to eyeglasses for low-income customers,” said Dr. Kassalow. “We run like a business, with earned revenue, and we manage to a planned net loss. Instead of seeing correcting refractive error – getting eyeglasses on faces – as a traditional public health program, we see it as investment in livelihoods, education, financial inclusion, and road safety.”

See to Learn, Earn and Be Safe

Dr. Kassalow pointed out that VisionSpring’s mission is broken down into three main initiatives: see to learn, see to earn, and see to be safe. 

“These underscore the ways in which improved vision can yield great economic benefits by empowering individuals to learn more easily, work more efficiently and increase their earnings, and see more clearly when driving. These three themes ladder up to five of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are SDG 1: No poverty; SDG 3: Good health and well-being; SDG 4: Quality education; SDG 5: Gender equality; and SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth,” he explained.

The enterprise reaches its customers using innovative B2B distribution models, which include:

1. Wholesale Partnerships – selling bulk quantities of eyeglasses, coupled with training and marketing, to a network of hospitals, rural pharmacies in Bangladesh, eye care centers, non-governmental organization (NGOs) and government partners. As of 2018, 385 organizations count on VisionSpring’s quality product, timely delivery, favorable payment terms and sell-through support to expand their vision services to low-income customers.

2. Third-Party Subsidized Vision Access Solutions – bringing eyeglasses to workplaces, schools and rural communities by pairing philanthropic funds with the purchasing power of end-consumers and governments. For example, in Bangladesh, 25,000 BRAC community health workers are conducting presbyopia screenings and have sold 1.4 million pairs of reading glasses in 61 of 64 districts in Bangladesh.

“In essence, VisionSpring exists to create access to affordable eyewear for everybody, everywhere. Throughout the years, we are proud of the fact that we are able to facilitate the wonder of clear vision through affordable eyewear for millions across the world,” shared Dr. Kassalow.

Get Involved

VisionSping collaborates with hospitals, rural pharmacies, eye care centers, NGOs and government partners, employers and supply chain organizations, and schools and rural communities, pairing philanthropic funds with the purchasing power of end-consumers and governments to provide eyeglasses. Individuals belonging to any of the above institutions, especially in Africa or Asia, who would like to explore partnerships can write to global.partnerships@visionspring.org.

The public can also donate through their website www.visionspring.org/donate. Every $5 invested ensures that one person across the world will get the benefit of clear vision – a school-aged child can learn better, a low-income worker’s productivity can improve, or a driver can drive safely.

VisionSpring’s Impact

Cumulative Reach: 43 countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Americas

Key Markets: 

India: Bihar, Madha Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (5 of the most impoverished states) 

Other countries: Bangladesh, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia

Cumulative Results as of Dec 31, 2018:

5.5 million pairs of vision correcting eyeglasses sold

More than $1 billion increased earning potential generated at the household level

52% acquiring their first-ever pair of eyeglasses

Dr. Jordan Kassalow

About the Contributing Doctor

Dr. Jordan Kassalow is an eye doctor, social entrepreneur and author. He is the founder of VisionSpring, the co-founder of EYElliance, and a partner at Drs. Farkas, Kassalow, Resnick, & Associates. He also founded the Global Health Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-founded Scojo New York. Prior to his position at the Council, he served as director of the River Blindness Division at Helen Keller International. Kassalow is a fellow of Draper Richards Kaplan, Skoll, Ashoka, and is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. He was named one of Schwab Foundation’s 2012 Social Entrepreneurs, was the inaugural winner of the John P. McNulty Prize, and was recognized in Forbes Impact 30. Additionally, he co-authored Dare to Matter: Your Path to Making a Difference Now.

VisionSpring has been internationally recognized by the Skoll Foundation, the Aspen Institute and the World Bank. It is a three-time winner of Fast-Company’s Social Capitalist Award, and a winner of Duke University’s Enterprising Social Innovation Award. [Email: jordan.kassalow@visionspring.org]