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How VisionSpring Experiments with Distribution to Expand Its Reach

August 24, 2017

By Zachary Slobig - Skoll Foundation

VisionSpring began with the guiding principle, “If you can’t see, you can’t work.” Since then it has evolved to include “If you can’t see, you can’t be safe”, and “If you can’t see, you can’t learn.” For some 624 million people worldwide, impaired vision dramatically impacts their ability to earn a living, support their family, plan for the future, and learn. 500 million of them require a simple pair of non-prescription reading glasses to correct their vision impairment. The trick though is access and distribution. VisionSpring forges new channels to deliver low-cost, high-quality eyeglasses to consumers at the base of the pyramid, opening access to everyone, regardless of income.

Since inception, VisionSpring has delivered eyeglasses to 3.9 million people worldwide and is on track to sell 10 million pairs by 2021. Studies have shown that these pairs of glasses have the potential to increase income by 20 percent—a remarkable improvement in the quality of life with a simple intervention. Recent Lancet research concludes that the numbers for blindness and vision impairment worldwide may triple by 2050, highlighting the real need for scaling effective interventions.

Over its 15 years, VisionSpring has experimented with business models through which affordable eyeglasses are delivered. The core approach when it began its work was distribution through a Vision Entrepreneurs (VE) model—specifically in Central America and India—where it trained women to conduct basic vision screenings, make referrals for other types of eye care needs, and sell eyeglasses to people in their communities.

Since then, VisionSpring has employed several distribution models including the use of outreach vans to bring vision screenings and affordable eyeglasses to people in remote communities, Hub and Spoke (full service optical shops in urban communities with outreach to rural and slum communities), and Wholesale Partnerships  which serves a network of like-minded hospitals, NGOs, and government agencies aiming to bring affordable eyeglasses to low-income individuals in emerging and frontier markets.

In 2015, VisionSpring began aligning itself with leading corporations in India, looking to fulfill their corporate social responsibility agendas, as directed by India’s 2013 CSR Act. Now, through CSR-focused projects, VisionSpring also works with corporations to bring vision screening and eyeglasses to their employees and stakeholder groups in rural and slum communities. By 2016, it had served consumers in 43 countries.

One of VisionSpring’s high-yielding partnerships is with BRAC in Bangladesh, established over a decade ago. This alliance leverages BRAC’s network of community health workers to conduct basic vision screening and include the sale reading glasses in their bundle of their health goods. This eyeglasses intervention program, Reading Glasses for Improved Livelihoods (RGIL) program, reached scale in December 2016, with 1 million pairs of eyeglasses sold throughout 61 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts.

With the success of this partnership, VisionSpring is now piloting RGIL with BRAC Uganda, which aims to train 4,000 community health promoters and create access to basic vision services for 1 million people. In a country where 75 percent of people with vision impairment can’t afford glasses, the need is great—eyeglass coverage is only as high as 15 percent in urban districts.

Ella Gudwin, VisionSpring President, recently visited a bustling market in downtown Uganda and met with a group of bean and grain merchants. “If you can’t see your beans, how can you sell them?” she asked. “They couldn’t inspect the quality of the beans when they come in from the farm.” Out of 10 merchants, 8 needed glasses.

“One woman had handed over all her accounting to her son,” said Gudwin. “And another told us this was the first time he’d been able to read his phone in years.” Clearly, there’s a radically unmet need, and VisionSpring continues to explore every avenue to scale its work.

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