As Google Glass is soon to be released and will perhaps be the hot new thing for 2013, today I would like to profile a creative social business also providing an innovative business solution using eyeglasses. VisionSpring has been operating for more than a decade to provide eyeglasses and job opportunities to people without prior access at the base of the economic pyramid in Bangladesh, El Salvador, India and South Africa. It has used an innovative human centered affordable product and delivery design model built in partnership with IDEO to sell eyeglasses to more than one million people to date. Its business model has been proven to provide productivity benefits to its customers and it has been featured in the New York Times and recently won a large grant from USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures fund.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS ABOUT?
VisionSpring is a social enterprise which provides affordable high-quality self-adjustable eyeglasses and job training to neglected communities in four large developing countries. It uses a unique human centered and practical business model that includes training “Vision Entrepreneurs” who bring vision screening and affordable eyeglasses to the most remote parts of the globe.
HOW DID IT START?
VisionSpring was founded in the US by PhD optometrist in 2001when through his travels and work in India he discovered that a large share of his patients were struggling and often losing their jobs due to poor eyesight. More startling he discovered that many of these people needed simple low-cost eyeglasses but were unable to buy them not because of the price but because of their lack of availability. It seemed like a natural business to start and thus he co-founded Scojo Foundation which in 2008 changed its name to VisionSpring and the rest is history.
WHAT IS THE SOCIAL NEED IT ADDRESSES?
About 87 percent of the world’s population needing glasses live in poor or middle-income countries. Most are over age 50. Without proper vision it is a struggle to work, learn and perform daily tasks. This is a huge productivity drain on the communities where these people live as these people cannot fully contribute to economic activity. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, lack of clear vision also hurts their human dignity – without eyeglasses or vision care these people can not function like normal members of society.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS MODEL?
VisionSpring has developed a unique business model which overcomes two of the key challenges in developing countries; affordability and distribution channels. To sell eyeglasses at the affordable price of $4 a pair it manufacturers the eyeglasses in bulk in China. To overcome the distribution challenge it uses a method pioneered in the microfinance industry. It hires and trains Vision Entrepreneurs to be its sales agents. Each Vision Entrepreneur receives three days of training and a sales kit they call “Business in a Bag” containing all the products and materials needed to market and sell eyeglasses. The sale reps go out into the communities they live – typically hard to reach places – and do basic vision screening as well as sell basic eyeglasses. The model only works for easily treated eye problems which can be solved with over-the-counter reading glasses. Typically VisionSpring also partners with local education and religious institutions to provide vision screening awareness campaigns. All of this adds up to an incredible and mostly sustainable way to bring vision care to places where it previously did not exist.
WHAT ARE SOME CONCERNS I SEE WITH THE MODEL?
- Donor dependency – Unfortunately the business is not fully sustainable, it continues to rely heavily on donors, grants and awards to keep the business alive. Which raises questions about how sustainable the business will be if donor money disappears.
- Pricing – At $4 a pair eyeglasses might still be too expensive for some of the world’s poorest, particularly in India where it does most of its business. On the other hand due to wage pressure it is not clear that keeping the eyeglasses priced at $4 a pair is realistic in the near future.
- Customer needs – The model only works in treating common generic vision problems, but does not solve the more sophisticated vision challenges that many people face such as myopia and astigmatism. To be able to treat those problems more customized eyeglasses are needed and these are still not affordable.
- Diagnostics – One could also question the ability of the Vision Entrepreneurs to be able to successfully diagnose vision problems with just three days of training. In addition there would be a tendency for these sales agents to push their product on all types of vision problems even if it doesn’t work just to push up sales numbers.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?