Guest Author

Aminah Yoba is a Development Officer at VisionSpring

The Importance of Clear Eyesight

Eyeglasses are a 700-year-old technology. So why are there still 703 million individuals in need of them globally? 77 percent of whom require nothing more than a simple pair of reading glasses that can be sourced for as little as $1? And why are more than 90 percent of these people bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers (those living on $4 per day) in emerging and frontier markets? The cost of impaired vision[i] to the global economy has been estimated to be a whopping $202 billion[ii], and low-income individuals are disproportionately affected by this loss. It’s time we change this.

Uncorrected vision impairment causes headaches, decreases productivity, and can lead to loss of income. The good news is that a pair of glasses can increase productivity by 35 percent[iii] – this based on a 2009 study of VisionSpring’s impact conducted by the University of Michigan. Further study of this data by VisionSpring found that this productivity gain from glasses can increase monthly income by 20 percent. Think about that: For a customer who makes $2 a day, a 20 percent increase translates to an extra $216 of income during the two-year life of their glasses.  That’s a worthwhile investment!

Blurry vision also has a powerful impact on education. In 2014, a randomized control trial in China found that correcting vision in elementary school students drastically improves their performance at school. According to the study, giving glasses to kids who needs them is equivalent to providing them one-third to half-a-year of additional schooling.[iv]  It’s a no-brainer: if you can’t see the board, you can’t learn your lesson.

There is enormous opportunity here: household incomes can go up, school achievement levels can rise, and the potential market is enormous. Despite this, the traditional optical market has failed to meet the needs of low-income consumers.

That’s where VisionSpring comes in.

VisionSpring is a global social enterprise with a clear mission: access to affordable eyewear, everywhere.  We work to ensure that this 700-year-old technology is easily accessible for people earning less than $4 per day. As a social enterprise, social change motivates us first, so rather than treating poor people as beneficiaries we treat them as consumers. We sell donor-subsidized glasses to them for under $4.

Why not just donate the glasses? Because selling new glasses allows us to reach four times more people than simply donating. It’s also an important step towards awakening a new demand and seeding a new market, spurring social change – meaning that in the future, low-income people across emerging and frontier markets will be have equitable access to this basic, essential product.


Naubat Khan, a VisionSpring customer, driving a truck.

Here’s where funders like Grand Challenges Canada come in.

Grand Challenges Canada’s support, funded by the Government of Canada, has allowed VisionSpring’s Vison Access Projects team—our community outreach team in India— to continue to break out of the traditional health and optical store channels, and bring vision screenings and eyeglass dispensing camps to our bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers in rural communities, slum neighborhoods, factories, transit hubs, agricultural estates, schools, places of worship and other community spaces.  These projects are organized around three main themes:

  1. See to Earn: Eyeglasses to Increase Household Income,
  2. See to Learn: Eyeglasses to Improve Academic Achievement, and
  3. See to be Safe: Eyeglasses to Reduce Risk of Accidents.

Each vision camp that delivers glasses is a success. From February through the end of June 2016, our Vision Access Projects team reached 46,124 low-income individuals with vision screenings, distributed 26,413 pairs of eyeglasses, and made 6,834 referrals for individuals needing further investigation or treatments.

Here are some of our favorites accomplishments from this year:

  • 20/20 Workplace at West Elm: With West Elm, a home furnishing company that sources from artisan collectives and fair trade factories, we were invited us to screen 200 workers at its rug factory in Haryana, India. Now these talented artisans can see their up-close work clearly.
  • Safe Roads with Apollo Tyres: See to be Safe project with Apollo Tyres (the leading tire manufacturer in India). This six-month program brought vision screening and eyeglasses to truck drivers and workers in Asia’s largest trucking hub. Our team screened a staggering 5,233 people and sold 1,188 pairs of affordable glasses. That’s 1,188 less people who can’t see the road!
  • Time for Tea – Clearly!: We reached Amalgamated Tea’s estate in remote Assam. Through the project nearly 3000 people received reading glasses; and over 500 were referred to the Chubwa Hospital for suspected cataracts. Now the tea workers (who are paid by the amount of tea leaves they collect) will be able to pick more efficiently, and increase their earnings. That’s tea-riffic!

A VisionSpring customer working on a tea estate.

Up next, our team will be launching projects that will bring tens of thousands low-income school–aged children and female micro-entrepreneurs in India, vision screenings and access to affordable eyeglasses. We look forward to seeing the results.

Low cost eyeglasses are an essential part of world health development. Our ambition is to drastically reduce the numbers of people – hundreds of millions! –  whose vision is impaired because they don’t have access to a simple pair of eyeglasses. If you can’t see, you can’t earn, learn, or be safe as well as you could with normal vision. It’s simple, really: see well, do well.

[i] Uncorrected refractive error (URE) is a major causes of visual impairment and the second major cause of blindness. Refractive errors are disorders which can easily be corrected by a pair of eyeglasses, not diseases..

[ii] TR Fricke a, BA Holden b, DA Wilson a, G Schlenther a, KS Naidoo a, S Resnikoff & KD Frick, Global cost of correcting vision impairment from uncorrected refractive error, 2012.

[iii] “VisionSpring Impact Assessment” William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.

[iv] Glewwe PW, Park A, Zhao M., The Impact of Eyeglasses on the Academic Performance of Primary School Students: Evidence from a Randomized Trial in Rural China, 2010

We encourage you to post your questions and comments about this blog post on our Facebook page Grand Challenges Canada and on Twitter @gchallenges.