Opinion: How to reach base-of-the-pyramid consumers? Inclusive businesses provide an answer.

An Eye Mitra optical technician. Photo by: Essilor

Uncorrected refractive error is the second leading cause of avoidable blindness and affects 2.5 billion people — 1 in 3 of the global population — and costs the global economy $227 billion in lost productivity each year when it can be “cured” with a simple pair of spectacles.

“When we talk about poor vision impacting 2.5 billion people we’re talking about a lack of trained professionals, a lack of access points — and a need for millions of both of these things.”

— Jayanth Bhuvaraghan, chief mission officer, Essilor International

Poor vision impacts a person’s ability to learn, work, lead a safe independent life, and to realize their full potential. Faced with a challenge of this size, the solution does not lie in one-off projects or waiting for governments to solve the problem. The solution lies in the communities themselves. Individuals can be empowered through knowledge, skills, and a little bit of financial support to address the public health crisis of vision care in their own communities in a sustainable way.

Refractive error

A refractive error is not an eye disease, it's simply a problem with how the eye focuses light. The most common refractive errors are nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. Refractive errors cannot be prevented, but they can be managed when diagnosed by a trained eye care professional during an eye examination and fixed with a pair of corrective glasses. Of the 2.5 billion affected, 90 percent live in low- or middle-income countries where there is little or no access to affordable vision care. This so-called base-of-the-pyramid population is a significant, underserved market that is difficult to reach.

For 170 years, Essilor has been on a mission to improve lives by improving sight and our ambition is to eradicate poor vision by 2050.

To do this, we’re constantly evolving and evaluating inclusive business models and testing and implementing innovative ways to reach populations with no access to vision care. When we talk about inclusive business models we mean commercially viable business models that benefit low-income communities by including them in our value chain; on the demand side as clients and customers and on the supply side as entrepreneurs.

Inclusive business models empower communities

Inclusive business models provide the answers to three problems faced in many of the countries we work in: a lack of primary health care professionals; a lack of access points that provide vision care; and youth unemployment in rural communities. Young people need to find employment and develop their business skills, both for their own and their community’s benefit. If these opportunities are not available, they travel into the cities where employment opportunities are competitive and where they risk becoming a burden on an already strained public sector.

Participants of an Eye Rafiki training in Kenya. Photo by: Essilor

This is what we have learned from our experience of devising and implementing inclusive business models:

Learnings for creating inclusive business models

1. Know your consumers

A base-of-the-pyramid consumer has the same aspirations and expectations of anyone you would find shopping in New York, Paris, or London. What they can afford and what they might prioritize is, of course, different and if you don’t have this insight you will never succeed.

2. One size does not fit all

Each country, and often each region within it, is unique and for inclusive business models to be successful they need to be adapted to each country’s individual circumstances. We always begin by exploring specific needs, challenges, and opportunities in that country, and build local capacity. Identifying local talent and partners is a critical first step for success. Everything from geography and infrastructure to local customs and consumer preferences impact the models we create.

3. Use pilots to test your business model

Even with local experts, we have learned that what you expect is not always how it works on the ground. Before taking one approach to scale, our teams will ideate and incubate different inclusive business approaches, measuring their impact, and if successful, help scale them up through connecting programs and partners with social enterprises, foundations, and development funds.

4. One common goal to drive innovation

Having one common goal that drives innovation across the spectrum will help maintain focus and keep you on track. The goal of delivering access to vision care at affordable prices where it is needed most drives the innovation of our inclusive business models, products, and funding models, to name just a few. We’re also experimenting in portable, mobile, and digital refraction tools, so affordable vision care can extend to even the most hard-to-reach communities.

5. Listen and learn

The feedback of partners and wearers from our programs has enabled us to develop a catalog of solutions from simple reading glasses to ready-to-clip frames and corrective lenses that give consumers a choice of attractive and affordable products on the spot.

Rekha Kumari: The Story of an Eye Mitra. Via YouTube

Inclusive business models can help us eradicate poor vision by 2050

By taking these learnings into account we have successfully taken Eye Mitra and launched it in Bangladesh — with support from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade where we will create affordable vision care for almost 100, 000 low-income consumers in rural areas — and Kenya, where it is known as Eye Rafiki.

Eye Mitras

Eye Mitra — which means “friend of the eyes” in Hindi — is Essilor’s flagship inclusive business, which began in India. The program addresses unmet needs for vision care by recruiting, training, and supporting unemployed and underemployed young people to become certified primary vision care providers.

Today with over 5,000 active micro entrepreneurs providing access to vision care, Eye Mitra is the world’s largest rural optical network. Active in 14 states in India, these start-ups have provided over 3 million people with affordable eyeglasses in the base-of-the-pyramid segment and are helping to address a small portion of India’s urban migration problem. By 2020, there will be 10,000 Eye Mitras bringing last mile connectivity to underserved communities around the world.

As well as providing eye care in rural areas where access and awareness of the impact of poor vision are low, the program provides purposeful self employment for thousands of young men and women who are able to give back to their communities and, at the same time, change the course of their own lives. For many Eye Mitras, the program has given them much needed confidence and financial independence, allowing them to support themselves and their families.

Last year we announced a partnership with Odisha Skills Development Authority — an organization of the government of Odisha, India — for the local implementation of the program. Through this partnership, over 300 young people will be trained to become primary vision care providers. Partners and governments are seeing the many benefits of this inclusive business approach.

Due to the unique primary vision care system in Indonesia, our approach is different but our end goal is the same. To improve the quality of care in rural Indonesia, we introduced Mitra Mata, meaning “friend of the eye” in Bahasa Indonesia, which will help strengthen the existing industry to raise awareness and provide access to quality affordable vision care for the 60 million Indonesians affected by uncorrected poor vision.

Today, uncorrected poor vision remains the world’s most widespread unaddressed disability, one that crosses cultural, geographic, and economic lines. This is why we’re working to eradicate poor vision from the world by 2050.

When we talk about poor vision impacting 2.5 billion people we’re talking about a lack of trained professionals, a lack of access points — and a need for millions of both of these things. This can only be solved at scale through financially sustainable inclusive business models. Innovation in business models and advances in technology are vital in helping us reach the 1 in 3 people who aren’t achieving their full potential in life because of uncorrected poor vision, as well as bringing much-needed jobs to rural and hard-to-reach communities.

Devex, with financial support from our partner Essilor, is exploring challenges, solutions, and innovations in eye care and vision. Visit the Focus on: Vision page for more.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jayanth Bhuvaraghan

    Jayanth Bhuvaraghan is chief mission officer of Essilor International. He is responsible for deploying Essilor’s mission of “improving lives by improving sight” by bringing good vision to everyone in a sustainably responsible way. He is leading initiatives to address the needs of the 2.5 billion people who don’t have access to good vision through inclusive business, philanthropy, and advocacy and awareness campaigns.