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India: Low Cost Reading Glasses to the Poor

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Project Stories

Reading Glasses for the Poor in India

Blurry vision almost cost bicycle repair shop owner Mohammed Jabbar the ability to support his family. In a country where access to optical services is limited to those who can afford them, Jabbar's business suffered as he began to loose his close-up vision.

"I didn't know what to do. I couldn't keep track of my records and my business really suffered," he said. "Then I heard there was a Scojo Vision Entrepreneur screening for glasses in my town, so I went to see him. I wear my glasses all the time now and my business is doing better than ever."

Scojo Foundation, a New York-based non-profit organization that won a Development Marketplace (DM) award in 2003, is extending its help to the 80 million residents of India's state of Andhra Pradesh by training community-based women entrepreneurs as Vision Entrepreneurs to screen for presbyopia or blurry up-close vision, sell affordable eyewear and products, and refer those requiring more advanced eye care to reputable eye clinics.

 

In 2001, the foundation ran a six-month pilot program for its market-based approach in India, which it wanted to scale up but could not because of lack of funding.

"To capitalize on India, we really needed a significant amount of funds, which at the time we really didn't know how to get, said Graham MacMillan from Scojo Foundation. That's when we threw our hat in the ring [for the Development Marketplace competition]. And with those resources we were able to do essentially everything.

"If we had not received the DM award we wouldn't be who we are today," he added. "From the stand point of results, we were able to capitalize the company, drive the project, and we made all sorts of linkages and gained credibility. It was really a stamp of approval at a time when there were very few blue ribbon panels on quality of project design."

Since winning the DM award in 2004 to train 60 women to sell reading glasses for a profit, Scojo Foundation has sold more than 50,000 pairs of glasses. To date, the India program has trained almost 500 Vision Entrepreneurs through its own networks and 20 franchise partners. It has spread its operations to Bangladesh, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Ghana -- sometimes with the support of grant funding, but often using the revenue earned through franchise fees.

Most recently, the foundation launched a partnership with Population Services International (PSI) to use the organizations distribution network of urban pharmacy stores to sell reading glasses to 30 sub-Saharan countries.

Scojo's micro-franshice model for a business in a bag has garnered attention from other donors, including Acumen Fund, Draper Richards Foundation, Lavelle Fund for the Blind, USAID and Open Society Institute. In 2005, the foundation won the Social Capitalist Award from Fast Company Magazine and the Monitor Group for its work in using the disciplines of the corporate world to tackle daunting social problems.

Said Dr Jordan Kassalow, chairman and co-funder of Scojo: "[Our]mission is to help those who suffer from presbyopia and improve the quality of life for all those whose livelihoods depend on close-up vision."

Nearly 1 billion people in the developing world need reading glasses to compensate for the loss of clear, up-close vision, yet only less than 5 percent of them can afford reading glasses.