More than a decade ago, Frederik van Asbeck, then 24, noticed that none of his new friends in Tanzania wore glasses, even though many of his classmates at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands did.
The problem, he discovered, was not poor vision among his classmates in Delft, but the difficulty of obtaining corrective eyewear in the outskirts of Dar es Salaam.
As Van Asbeck was to discover upon his return from Africa in 2001, a relatively simple solution was at hand: inexpensive corrective lenses that could fix as much as 60 per cent of the world’s vision problems.
So Van Asbeck finished his Master’s in industrial design and set out with his stepfather, Jan in ‘t Veld, to found Focus on Vision, a non-profit foundation that designs, manufactures and distributes adjustable eyeglasses.
After five years spent on research and design, Focus on Vision began production in 2009. Today, the non-profit, all-volunteer foundation says it has distributed 250,000 spectacles to people in 37 countries, making it a leading player in the global fight to correct poor vision.
Based on work done in the 1960s by Nobel prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez, the adjustable glasses are created by a system of two sliding lenses. By turning a little wheel in the arm of the glasses, the lenses can be adjusted to create anywhere from -1.0 to -5.0 or +0.5 to +4.5 vision correction, depending on the spectacles.
And they look cool, similar to the thick-rimmed hipster glasses seen on the streets in Brooklyn and other fashionable neighbourhoods around the world. They come in seven colours with names like ‘Aqua’, ‘Frog’, ‘Hena’ and ‘Raspberry’, though the black and the brown models are by far the most popular.
Not surprisingly, they’ve won several design competitions.
First to drop out
The secret here is not just the mass production of inexpensive spectacles that can be adjusted to correct the wearer’s eyesight. It is their delivery, at low cost, to people who need them. In ‘t Veld calls it a classic example of a relatively simple innovation made available to fix a systemic and complicated problem.
Mr In ‘t Veld (right) has witnessed how poor vision affects people’s quality of life. Children who have difficulty seeing the blackboard are the first to drop out of school, he said.
“They are sentenced to stand at traffic lights, selling balloons or cheap plastic toys,” he added.
Poor eyesight — myopia, hyperopia or astigmatism — may not be as dramatic as hunger, malnutrition, or disease in the catalogue of challenges faced by the world’s poor. Yet too often, people in developing countries have limited access to ophthalmologists or optometrists and lack the funds to buy the prescription glasses they need.
It’s a problem with large social and economic consequences. People with good vision — or access to corrective eye glasses — have a better quality of life and earn more money in the long term than their poor-sighted friends and neighbours. A study by the World Health Organisation estimates that more than $400 billion of productivity is lost worldwide because people can’t see properly.
A marketing study by Focus on Vision, which tested 1,800 university students in Ghana, found that only one student needed to have his vision corrected. Mr In ‘t Veld sees this as proof that people with uncorrected vision problems are kept out of schools, colleges and universities and never reach their full potential.
The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) calculates the number of people in the world with poor, uncorrected vision at about 250 million, while others estimate it to be one billion. WHO, together with IAPB, is leading an ambitious effort worldwide, working with national programmes, to correct all correctable vision by 2020.
In the commercial outskirts of this tiny, tidy and prosperous Dutch village, the plastics factory which produces Focusspecs — as the adjustable glasses are called — is far away from the places where they are distributed.
The lenses are made by a high-pressure injecting-molding machine originally designed to make cheap CDs and DVDs. Housed in the workshop of a company that tests high-precision plastic molds for things like disposable airline forks, the Focus on Vision production line takes up a tiny corner of a big, bustling production hall.
Focus on Vision has ambitious goals of manufacturing 10 million of its Focusspec glasses by 2020. The lenses will continue to be made at the specialised factory here in Gameren.
In order to support the massive expansion, the foundation hopes to make the frames outside of the Netherlands.
Other aid organisations produce adjustable eyeglasses, but none are manufacturing so many, so quickly and as cheaply as Focus on Vision, said Mr In ‘t Veld.
Shipping and import
About 80 per cent of the Focusspec glasses are distributed by third party aid organisations, which buy them at cost from Focus on Vision. Mr In’t Veld would not disclose the cost of producing the glasses, but said most of his expenses go towards shipping and import tariffs.
Aid organisations pay from five (Sh570) to 18 euros (Sh2,052) to bring each pair to communities in developing countries where Focus on Vision encourages them to sell the glasses for a nominal price, rather than give them away.
People should feel ‘this is mine’, Mr In ‘t Veld says.
How targeted approach works
Focus on Vision matches a product to a person’s particular handicap.
The organisation has taken a direct approach, working directly with beneficiaries rather than with institutions.
In every village, it has identified ‘vision guardians’ who diagnose ailments and distribute the glasses.
Beneficiaries pay a fee to encourage ownership.