Perhaps you heard of the term microfinance, but have you ever heard of the term microfranchise? Generally pertaining to the developing world, microfranchising is a business model that applies the traditional concepts of franchising to small businesses and can be easily replicated by entrepreneurs, even those at the bottom of the pyramid. VisionSpring is a social enterprise that uses a microfranchising model to reduce poverty and generate opportunity in the developing world through the sale of affordable sunglasses.
VisionSpring was founded in 2001 by Jordan Kassalow and Scott Berrie. Over 400 million people across the developing world suffer from a deterioration of vision and have no access to affordable vision services. In many cases, poor eyesight is the difference between livelihood and not. Artisans, tailors, mechanics, and many others that do detail-oriented work rely on proper eyesight for continued productivity. A drop in productivity can push vulnerable families over the edge.
As founders of VisionSpring, it made sense to tackle this problem. Still their intentions are not without basis. In an impact assessment done with the University of Michigan, VisionSpring estimates a 35% average increase in productivity from workers using their glasses. They calculate that each pair of glasses produces $381 in increased earnings over two years.
Based on this calculation and more than 925,000 glasses sold to date, they generated more than $352 million in economic impact.
As a 501(C)3 non-profit organization, VisionSpring relies on the support of individuals, corporations, and foundations including the Skoll Foundation, Acumen Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation to cover a portion of the budget. The other portion of the budget is recovered through the sale of glasses. The goal is to gradually refine the business model and reinvest earnings to the organization to ensure sustainability of operations regardless of philanthropic capital.
In addition, VisionSpring forges partnerships with a variety of organizations with established networks and strong infrastructures to distribute glasses to the poorest, hardest-to-reach communities. Another way they distribute glasses is through their microfranchising program called Vision Entrepreneur.
Vision Entrepreneurs are local individuals who are given a microfranchise sales kit called Business in a Bag. These bags contain all the products and materials needed to market and sell eyeglasses. The Vision Entrepreneurs receive training in basic eye care and business management as well as ongoing support. They conduct screenings to determine whether customers need vision treatment easily achieved with over-the-counter reading glasses or more complex treatment, in which case they will refer the customer to a VisionSpring Optical Shop or a partner eye hospital.
The goal of the program is to create income-generating opportunities for locals while generating awareness and providing access to VisionSpring products. The glasses cost as little as $4 and Vision Entrepreneurs make roughly $1-2 per pair. The relationships Vision Entrepreneurs foster with their customers are an integral part of the customer feedback loop that ensures products meet their demand.
VisionSpring currently works in Bangladesh, El Salvador, India, and South Africa and has 9,000 active Vision Entrepreneurs.
Body photo from VisionSpring.
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