Some 400 million people worldwide, most in rural areas of developing countries, do not have access to simple reading glasses. Graham Macmillan ’97 and his partners at the nonprofit VisionSpring have developed an innovative way to address this problem—but they’re not giving it away.
VisionSpring’s business model is rooted in theories of microfinance: They train low-income people in India, Bangladesh, Ghana, Guatemala, and El Salvador, among other countries, to start micro-franchises to sell reading glasses. And the benefits go beyond the individual seller. “Using reading glasses for the first time, aging farmers can again work fields efficiently and career textile workers can sew faster and more accurately,” Macmillan said. Indeed, the incentive of greater efficiency and career longevity has led to sales of 240,000 pairs of reading glasses worldwide in the past six years by VisionSpring’s 900 entrepreneurs.
To start off, VisionSpring sets up each entrepreneur with, quite literally, a business in a bag. It is filled with about 25 pairs of reading glasses, 15 pairs of sunglasses, a uniform, and cleaning cloths. The entrepreneurs are then trained how to screen for presbyopia, or up-close blurry vision, and other related eye problems, and they learn how to successfully run a sustainable business.
The vision entrepreneur then travels door to door, some village to village, screening for presbyopia. Those who show symptoms of presbyopia then have the option to buy glasses for between four and nine dollars, which in some communities is a substantial percentage of the buyer’s income. “The price hurts enough where it makes a difference,” Macmillan said, “but it also enables the customer to say, ‘I don’t have to buy this, you aren’t giving this to me.’ It’s the dignity of choice.”
The innovation yet overall simplicity of the model has led to accolades. The Economist, NBC Nightly News, National Public Radio, and the International Herald Tribune have profiled the foundation, while former President Bill Clinton called the foundation his “favorite commitment” from his Clinton Global Initiative meeting in 2007.
Despite the media attention, VisionSpring, like Macmillan, keeps its focus on the service provided. “There is so much power in this simple product, because the benefit is instantaneous,” Macmillan said. “You put on a pair of glasses and you can immediately see the difference.”
—Brendan Sullivan ’06