Seeing is Believing

Out of nearly 300 million people who need spectacles, only 40 million have access to eye care and glasses.

Spectacles might be his business but Keerti Bhushan Pradhan is very grateful for India’s vast mobile phone network. “It is the small keys on the mobile phone that often convince people in the rural areas that they need glasses,” he says.

Bringing a Change

Interview with a Vision Entrepreneur.
Photograph courtesy VisionSpring

I sold my first pair of spectacles in December 2006 to Narsimha Reddy from my village,” says Rama Devi. “I was not nervous as I was used to selling consumer products as a Shakti Entrepreneur. The only inhibition I had was that I was not a doctor.” The Shakti Programme helps women in rural India set up small businesses. She wondered if patients would trust and accept her recommendations. That was nearly seven years ago.
Today, Devi, coordinator of Shadnagar unit near Hyderabad, is among the organization’s longest serving members. She started working in her village, Kalwakurthy, but moved to Shadnagar in 2010 when VisionSpring’s mobile optical stores were established there. She also trains team members.
“I was a tailor in a sari business and also a Hindustan Unilever Shakti member when a Vision Entrepreneur explained the model to me,” she says. “Initially, I was very doubtful if I would be able to sell the spectacles. I went to school till class 12 and then I got married. I had no medical background at all.”
But the idea intrigued her. “The training and VisionSpring’s approach to help rural people made me accept the offer,” she says, adding that they were given a four-day training course on how to identify people with near-vision problems like presbyopia.
She was also taught about the concept of refraction by a VisionSpring optometrist. “The training was a mix of classroom and field training,” she says. “The refraction training has really helped me conduct detailed eye checkups.” She is proud of the certificate she has received as part of her training.
As a Vision Entrepreneur, her salary varies based on the number of glasses she is able to sell.
She is motivated to stay on because as “someone from a village in Andhra Pradesh, I am aware of the problems faced by people with vision problems and VisionSpring has created an opportunity for me to serve them.” —P.P.

As a health care management expert, Pradhan shares some startling statistics about eye health in the country. “Out of nearly 300 million people who need spectacles, only 40 million have access to eye care and glasses. The rest of the population is either unaware that their failing eye sight needs attention or they simply can’t afford to buy eyeglasses,” he says. “Yet, a simple pair [of] reading...glasses can immediately increase productivity by 35 percent.” 
Pradhan, who is the India director of New York-based VisionSpring, knows he has a chance to help change these statistics. VisionSpring ensures the ready availability of affordable eye glasses to help people in India and other developing countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bangladesh and South Africa to maintain healthy vision.
Funded by foundations, corporations and individual donors, VisionSpring has been working in India since 2005, with headquarters in Hyderabad. It also supports partners in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi.
Increasing reach
VisionSpring’s early work involved training local people to become Vision Entrepreneurs, conduct outreach and sell quality, low cost eyeglasses in their communities.
“Extensive pilot studies conducted before we launched showed that it would be easier to reach the local people if the entrepreneurs came from their midst,” says Pradhan. “The program has been modified significantly to serve our target audiences effectively.” 
VisionSpring now holds eye camps where a team of optometrists and Vision Entrepreneurs conduct eye tests and assign spectacles. Patients take their prescriptions and get their glasses within minutes. Customers who need more complex care or treatment are given referrals to a VisionSpring optometrist or a partner eye health institution. 
The door-to-door visits by Vision Entrepreneurs still continue, where they remind customers about dates and timings of eye camps. Over 20 vision campaigns are conducted every month.
“There is no rigorous selection process,” says Pradhan. “Anyone interested can work with us. The only thing we try and ensure is that they...stay with us for a while because it takes time and effort to train them.” 
VisionSpring’s eye glasses are readymade products provided to the entrepreneurs at subsidized rates, which then are sold at prices ranging between Rs. 150 and Rs. 250.
For customers like Toti and Omprakash, whose declining vision had started taking a toll on their business, purchasing glasses from VisionSpring was an easy decision. The brothers are farmers, but during the last season they were not able to see the insects that were eating their produce. After purchasing eyeglasses from VisionSpring, reading stories to their grandchildren is once again a nightly tradition. The brothers have also had a healthy crop this year.
It is stories like these that inspire Pradhan. “I have years of experience in the field of eye care. Earlier, as a management person, I was doing very complex projects like setting up surgical centers for hospitals,” he says. “Today, I am stunned by the difference a simple idea can make.”
Paromita Pain is currently doing her M.A. in specialized journalism from the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California.