Combating The Stigma of Glasses In India

By Anna Gerrard, Private Sector Engagement & Development Manager, Sightsavers

Combating The Stigma of Glasses In India

Anna has just returned from staying with families in the urban slums in Kolkata, India. Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal.

Why is it that people in developing countries do not often have convenient access to basic health services or medicines, but that Coca-Cola can be bought even in the remote corners of Africa?

At Sightsavers we understand that the private sector has a powerful role to play in global poverty reduction. From improving their supply chains to reducing their environmental footprint and increasing social impact. It requires commitment beyond the here and now, with a mutual recognition that real ‘shared value’ lies beyond the horizon.

Sustainable eye care project for India’s urban poor

India has the largest population of blind people in the world. Over 12 million people in the country are blind. Most of them live in the poorest parts of the country with little or no access to basic health care facilities.

Worldwide, 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired, with approximately 90 percent of those living in the emerging and developing economies. That is why Sightsavers is working in partnership with Dr. Erik Simanis, Head of the Frontier Markets Initiative at Cornell University on an innovative business model that can sustainably deliver primary eye care solutions to India’s urban poor.

The project builds on tools and learnings developed through prior partnerships headed by Simanis to reach mass market consumers across emerging and frontier economies, including recent partnerships with SC Johnson in Ghana and with Unilever in Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Market-based approaches to development

In order to improve programme effectiveness and delivery, Sightsavers is committed to pioneering new ways of working. Realising that solving some of the world’s most pressing problems require solutions that are commensurate with the size of the problem, we have established market-based approaches and private sector engagement programmes as central to our work.

With a long standing history of strategic partnerships with the private sector, we understand the benefits of partnering with business in emerging and developing economies. In 2014, Sightsavers partnered with Unilever to improve facial hygiene among rural people in Northern Kenya to help combat the blinding eye disease trachoma.

Beneficiaries versus consumers

What is required now is to take the next step to start viewing people in developing countries as consumers, entrepreneurs and producers of products and services. The approach is rooted in the bottom of the pyramid concept developed by C.K. Prahalad, which promotes the view that the poor are not victims, or a burden, but value-conscious consumers.

This enables Sightsavers and its partners to think creatively about solving old problems in new and innovative ways – creating business models or working with businesses to solve social problems, rather than designing services that are dependent upon donor funding. Not only does this approach make solutions more likely to be sustainable over the long term, they are also more likely to be solutions that build on consumer demand – thereby placing local people at the heart of the solution.

For example, in India we know that eye health and eyeglasses are not highly valued among the urban poor, who are often struggling with immediate challenges such as earning a decent wage, giving their children a good education, whilst living in areas with limited access to basic water and sanitation.

Listening to India’s urban poor

So, we’re designing a new way to create primary eye health services in a way that stimulates demand from the start. This consumer-centric approach requires understanding daily lives and the ‘gains’ which can be created with better eyesight, which is why the team and I have just returned from India where we stayed with families in the Kolkata slums.

Our time in India initially focused on identifying local distribution channels for eyeglasses. We then spent time talking to local people to understand the consumer mindset and lifestyle preferences.

There is still a great deal of stigma attached to wearing eyeglasses among India’s poor, who equate glasses with looking unattractive or as a sign of weakness. People also told us that they sometimes wear sunglasses, because they like the look of them, but on the flip side we found that they often leave their eyeglasses at home. Women regularly leave the home without a handbag, so carrying a glasses case is inconvenient and doesn’t fit into how they live.

We found that people in the slums have busy daily lives, so eye tests need to be much more convenient if we want to reach a lot of people.

Developing a new approach to eye care

The findings from India will help us move the value proposition out of the ‘eye health’ box, which should increase the frequency by which people have eye tests, as well as moving the needle on the stigma of wearing eyeglasses by moving it into the fashion box. The solution will be profit-making, because we know that the only way to create a scalable eye health solution in a country as large as India is to be able to cover start-up and working capital costs, ongoing operating costs, and the cost of capital. We hope that by taking this ambitious approach, the urban poor will no longer be reliant on long-term hand-outs to receive quality eye health services in their communities.

Media contact:

Lucy Stanyer Communications Consultant for Sightsavers
Tel: 07966 171428
Email: ls******@si*********.org

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