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Eyeglasses + Women Entrepreneurs = International Development WIN

February 20, 2010
VisionSpring

A Vision Entrepreneur at work in Latin America/www.visionspring.org/blog

Last week while flipping through Parade magazine, of all places (it’s that Sunday newspaper insert that reads like a Cliffs Notes version of Reader’s Digest), I came across the story of a nonprofit that has a unique model of aiding impoverished communities in developing countries.

VisionSpring trains local individuals—many of them women—to perform basic vision exams and sell nonprescription glasses to members of their community. It’s a win-win situation, as it gives people access to the vision correction they need to perform their work, and it provides a source of income for the seller, called a “vision entrepreneur” or VE. The organization now operates in India, Bangladesh, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Ghana.

Founder Dr. Jordan Kassalow, an optometrist, developed the idea for VisionSpring while working in developing countries. He found that about 40% of patients he treated needed a simple pair of nonprescription glasses which were not available in their communities. Without glasses, many patients would find it difficult or impossible to continue their work in weaving, farming, artistry, or other trades. But rather than simply bringing in an American team to distribute glasses, Dr. Kassalow recognized an opportunity to employ locals who needed a source of income. He tells Parade:

So many people in underprivileged areas lose their livelihoods as they age because they can’t afford the glasses they need to see their work. At the same time, millions of women need a way to support themselves. We decided to train women to start small businesses selling glasses to their neighbors at a price they can afford. We began with 18 women and currently have more than 5000 selling glasses from Ghana to El Salvador.

VisionSpring works on a similar principle as microfinance programs, only instead of providing the capital to start a business the organization provides the business itself–a concept called micro-franchising. VisionSpring calls its program a “Business in a Bag”, as it provides VEs with eyecharts, glasses, and marketing materials in satchel so they can easily travel to reach customers. VEs like the business because it’s flexible in terms of location and hours (which is especially beneficial to women who also run households)—plus it allows them to transform the lives of their neighbors. In one post on VisionSpring’s blog, the organization’s Vice President of Sales and Operations, Peter Eliassen, describes a group of VEs’ thoughts about their work:

Yesterday and today I met with a bunch of Vision Entrepreneurs (VEs) here in Nicaragua, and I asked each one what motivates them. Although the women generally want to discuss their sales – how much money they make, and how they would change this or that style – when I ask them about what motivates them, it always brings a smile to their face. Each has told me mas o menos the same thing, that the best part of what they do is sharing the joyful moments when their customers can see clearly for the first time in many years (the “ah-ha!” moment). The VE’s are given titles by their customers like “Savior of Sight”, or “Angel of Vision” and that’s what really fuels them.

VisionSpring’s business model is particularly interesting to me because it’s one of the few entrepreneurship-based aid organizations I have heard about that gives members of a community a livelihood in providing a service to other members of the community. Another example of such a model is a program in Haiti that helps workers transform trash into cork-like briquettes that are sold to the community as a much cheaper fuel alternative to charcoal.

These programs stand in contrast to entrepreneurship programs that focus on employing people—again, usually women—in developing nations tocreate crafts or jewelry for sale in the Western world. Organizations like BeadforLife and Oprah’s O Bracelet program certainly have commendable business models. They both employ impoverished women to create jewelry out of recycled materials, and they invest proceeds back into projects that benefit the greater community. As Jaclyn Bovee wrote here in November, many women enjoy the jewelry-making work for its artistry and opportunity to bond with other workers as much as for the income it provides.

BeadforLife

BeadforLife/credit Charles Steinberg ©csteinberg2007

The jewelry itself as a product, though, has little direct benefit to the community (other than serving as a means to recycle some trash materials). The product is instead designed to appeal to Western customers. Specifically, these programs focus on fashion as a fundraising tool to create “bridges of understanding” between impoverished people and “concerned world citizens,” as BeadforLife puts it. Such programs certainly do seem to be more successful at generating publicity in the popular press than organizations like VisionSpring.  Many Western women (including myself here; while I have not purchased a product from BeadforLife or an O bracelet, I do have a couple crafts produced by aid organizations) are glad to be able to buy a product that is ethically manufactured and that benefits a community rather than a corporation. The specter of cultural commodification sometimes hovers over such products, however. While some feminists like this form of aid, to others it is a sad reminder about the power of America’s consumer culture.

It’s difficult to compare the impact of organizations such as BeadforLife and VisionSpring, because they provide income and service to communities in such different ways. There are so many factors that determine the success of an aid program beyond revenue—sustainability, emotional impact on the community, social change—and I am no expert on development. It’s interesting to consider, however, how different aid models can be structured around appeal to Western consumers or around providing in-community products and services–and both can be tools of powerful, positive transformation.

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