I recently caught up with Jordan Kassalow, a former CFR colleague who founded the non-profit VisionSpring nearly a decade ago. Kassalow, an optometrist by training, recognized that one of the great opportunities to improve economic productivity in the developing world is by getting simple reading glasses—the kind you can buy off the shelf at any drugstore in America—into the hands of the working poor, those earning less than $2 a day. Some 560 million people around the world are visually impaired yet have no access to eyeglasses. More than 70 percent of them just need the mass-produced, non-prescription type. The majority of the visually impaired are middle-aged laborers—the economic backbones of their communities, raising children and supporting elderly parents at the same time. As their vision blurs with age, they lose their livelihoods, which hurts their families and their communities. A recent study by the University of Michigan confirmed Jordan’s hypothesis: once workers have eyeglasses to improve near vision, their productivity rises by 35 percent and their incomes rise by 20 percent—a gain that can last for twenty years.
The challenge is finding a sustainable business model for selling eyeglasses to the poor. In India and Pakistan, VisionSpring has trained and equipped a cadre of “Vision Entrepreneurs” who sell VisionSpring’s affordable eyeglasses on consignment. Eighty percent of the Vision Entrepreneurs are women, mostly mothers looking to earn some extra money. They go door to door with their “business in a bag” that includes a veritable front-end pharmacy for eyes: ready-made reading glasses, sunglasses, and eye drops. The reading glasses, made in China and sourced for about $2 a pair, sell for between $4 and $7. Still, after all costs are accounted for, including shipping, sales training, and overhead, VisionSpring loses money on each sale. In Bangladesh, VisionSpring has linked up with BRAC‘s 80,000-person sales force to achieve scale more quickly, and while that has helped drive down costs, it has not yet resulted in a sustainable business.
Recently, VisionSpring has started experimenting with a new approach. In February, it opened a store in El Salvador staffed with an optometrist and six others who perform eye tests and sell prescription glasses for $15-20, as well as the cheaper off-the-shelf ones. The margin on prescription glasses is higher, enough to cover costs and provide a small finder’s fee to the Vision Entrepreneurs who book appointments at the store for those who cannot be helped with ready-made wares. A lot of the customers for prescription glasses are children with more serious vision issues. These kids often drop out of school because they cannot see the blackboard. Studies have suggested that kids with vision problems gain a full grade level when they finally get glasses.
While the store in El Salvador is already profitable, it will be hard to replicate this success in more rural areas (El Salvador is 70 percent urban). In India, VisionSpring is trying to serve rural communities with mobile stores that travel to villages for a day or two every six months.
Although Kassalow is a prodigious fund-raiser (he collected nearly $2 million for VisionSpring last year), his persistence in trying to find a sustainable business model to bring eyeglasses to the poor is well placed. Charity can help some, but it will never meet the needs of the more than half a billion vision-impaired people who lack access to eyeglasses. VisionSpring’s efforts to develop a market are an important step in applying business solutions to poverty alleviation. In forthcoming posts, I will explore other innovative market-based approaches to economic development. Stay tuned!