Social entrepreneurs often deal with intertwining issues. For example, they want to provide financial services for rural communities, but many of these communities do not even have birth documents let alone addresses or well-defined streets. In the case of Indego Africa, a social enterprise that pay women artisans in Rwanda for their products to sell overseas and use profits to fund training programs, poor eyesight was the issue hindering production and learning in the classroom. Given this issue, they started a partnership with social enterprise VisionSpring last July to provide glasses for the women.
Artisans rely heavily on their eyes, but poor vision makes it difficult to thread a needle and causes eye strain from hours on a knitting machine. A pair of glasses to correct near vision or presbyopia, a natural deterioration of the eye after age 35, is the difference between income and livelihood or not for many.
Instead of handing donations like traditional charity, many social enterprises sell their products on the basis that even poor consumers have dignity and desire for choice, an appreciation for quality products, and from a business standpoint, it is a self-sustaining model. Like many social enterprises, VisionSpring sells its products.
But in moving ahead with the partnership, Indego Africa debated on the difficult question: to supply the eyeglasses for free or to ask each woman to contribute to their cost?
On the one hand, to have the women artisans contribute something would give them a stake in ownership and influence caretaking of the glasses. On the other hand, a pair of glasses in Rwanda can cost up to $40. Many of the women have never put on a pair of glasses to even consider purchasing a pair. But more importantly, Indego Africa does not sell products in Rwanda, meaning asking for contributions may pose regulatory concerns.
In the end, the decision was to provide the glasses free of charge. Following the previous year, Indego Africa and VisionSpring teamed up again last month to start another initiative in delivering eyeglasses for women in Ejo Hazaza (“Beads of Tomorrow”), a beading cooperative just outside Kigali comprised of 29 women who come from refugee camps and are HIV-positive.
As a result of this experience, Indego Africa offers an important lesson for social entrepreneurs. One could reason that providing women with a sense of responsibility and ownership through the sale of glasses would encourage them to take health matters in their own hands – for example, to pay for trips to the clinic. But that also means more time away from work and less income. For many of these women, money is crucial to a better life for themselves and their families. Social entrepreneurs must face the fact that the people they want to help may not want the same for themselves. In fact, some women have chosen not to show up for eye screening tests. In the end, though social entrepreneurs provide knowledge and tools, it is up to the person to take control of their life.
Social Enterprise Buzz is a media company dedicated to covering social enterprise news from around the world. We publish a range of stories from startups to entrepreneurship, innovation, and finance, which showcase business making the world a better place. Read more.