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'Vision' entrepreneurs -- the new rural biz

K Rajani Kanth in Chennai, Hyderabad | April 20, 2009

For Rama Devi, a seamstress in Mahabubnagar, the Rs 1,000 a month that she earns through sale of her handiwork was insufficient to support her husband and two children. Her husband, who worked in agriculture, endured long gaps of unemployment.

Today as 'vision entrepreneurs,' they together earn about Rs 5,000 a month. They recently made their first major investment -- a motorcycle -- which they use to reach more villages to host eyecare campaigns.

Rama Devi is one of the 150 vision entrepreneurs in Andhra Pradesh groomed by VisionSpring, a New York-based non-government organisation laser-focused on correcting an unmet need for working eyeglasses in the developing world.

"About 400 million people worldwide are in need of inexpensive pair of reading eyeglasses, mostly in the developing countries. In India, it is estimated that about 250 million need such glasses. Our focus through our programmes is to reduce poverty and generate opportunity in the developing world through the sale of affordable working eyeglasses," Graham Macmillan, senior director of VisionSpring, told Business Standard.

VisionSpring, which has its Indian headquarters in Hyderabad, trains low-income men and women as vision entrepreneurs and equips them with 'business-in-a-bag' to start their own small businesses selling affordable working eyeglasses and other eyecare products.

These entrepreneurs screen for blurry up-close vision, clinically known as presboypia, an age-related physical condition that sets in between 35 and 40 years, sell affordable working glasses to those in need and refer those requiring more advanced eyecare to partner hospitals like L V Prasad Eye Institute.

At present, VisionSpring operates in four districts of Andhra Pradesh -- Mahabubnagar, Prakasam, West and East Godavari -- through a direct marketing network of 150 vision entrepreneurs and through 60 franchise partners and like-minded NGOs in Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, Gujarat and West Bengal where it is currently piloting programmes. The NGO plans to take this number to about 300 in these five states by the end of 2009.

"Lack of working eyeglasses is leading to low productivity in rural folk such as weavers, goldsmiths, tailors and mechanics, whose livelihood depends on up-close vision. Since 2005, we had sold about 50,000 pairs of working glasses in Andhra Pradesh. Our plan is to double the sales this year in this state alone," Macmillan said.

Currently operating in 11 developing countries including Guatemala, Salvador, Paraguay, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, VisionSpring plans to expand its horizons to South Africa and Mexico this year, even as it is targeting to sell 700,000 pairs of glasses globally by 2010, as compared with last year's 250,000 units, he added.

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