Over 500 million people in developing countries can restore their vision with a pair of simple reading glass and yet they have no access to affordable reading glasses. This challenge has motivated Jordan Kassalow and Scott Berrie to co-found Vision Spring (www.visionspring.org) in 2001 with a clear goal: to produce, distribute, and sell affordable glasses for the poor workers in developing countries.
Producing cheap glasses was the easy part, but distributing them turned out to be difficult. By limiting the reading glasses to three different strengths and by outsourcing the production to China, Vision Spring managed to produce reading glasses at around $2 per pair. However, because distribution channels are non-existent in the rural areas of many developing countries, Vision Spring explored different ideas to distribute their glasses in different phases.
During the exploration phase, Vision Spring started with the “micro-franchise” model under which micro-entrepreneurs (known as Vision Entrepreneurs) receive a 3-day training program and a sales kit that contains reading glasses of different strengths and the eye-examination charts. Initially, the kit was “sold” to the micro-entrepreneurs through micro-financing so that Vision Spring is essentially running a micro-franchise model. After experiencing difficulties in attracting micro-entrepreneurs to take up loans for the kits and in managing these loans, Vision Spring changed the model to a “micro-consignment” model under which Vision Spring “lends” the kit with 20 pairs of glasses to the micro-entrepreneurs. By setting the wholesale price at $3 and retail price at $4, each micro-entrepreneur earns $1 for selling a pair of reading glasses without incurring any upfront investment.
While the micro-consignment model gains some traction, the growth was limited because micro-entrepreneurs cannot earn much by selling reading glasses only especially when they often travel on-foot which makes it difficult for them to sell in different villages (Figure above). To increase their earnings without the need to travel extensively on foot, Vision Spring developed a “referral program” so that these micro-entrepreneurs can earn extra by referring customers to designated Vision Spring optical shops in El Salvador that sell prescription glasses.
To scale up the distribution and retail operations, Vision Spring developed a franchise model by partnering with other organizations such as microfinance institutions and community health organizations such as BRAC. The partnership with BRAC enabled Vision Spring to piggy back on BRAC’s network of community health volunteers who sell basic health and hygiene products in villages for many years. This partnership is scaling up rapidly: BRAC is targeting to sell over 13 million pairs of Vision Spring glasses within the next 10 years.
When the social business is proven to be sustainable and scalable, the funding for scaling up the operations would be easier to come by. Vision Spring has received funding from a number of foundations such as Skoll Foundation and The Lonely Planet Foundation. In 2013 alone, Vision Spring sold over 380,000 pairs of glasses in developing countries. When the poor can see, they can work. The economic impact of Vision Spring will continue to grow!