Aloka Vision Programme
ZEISS has been chosen to pilot a new social business approach in rural India to find sustainable answers to the vision challenge. About 300 million people in India who need visual correction have no access to any vision or eye care. And because the root cause for uncorrected a visual impairment is the lack of eye care professionals and infrastructure for vision tests and eye exams, the “Aloka Vision Programme” is about establishing basic infrastructure and thus reaching people in unserved, rural areas.
“Two things were clear to us when we at ZEISS started to think about solutions to this global problem,” said Daniel Sims, General Manager of ZEISS India. “Firstly, we need to make it a business model.” A business model that enables people to earn their living by providing poor people with glasses that are good enough. “That would be the main driver for significant growth of the initiative, because some hundreds of entrepreneurs in the end would be motivated to get involved and make it a success”, said Sims. A sustainable solution, rather than one that depends on charity, is possible. "To bring better vision to some hundreds of millions is nothing a single company can do. So, secondly, we need an initiative which ignites an approach to sales where a project feeds off its own growth.” In addition to the business model, a strong partnership with NGOs, government and other firms can give the initiative the crucial boost it needs.
Marc Wawerla, COO of ZEISS Vision Care and Aloka project sponsor, adds, “Our question was how to bring vision care to those people, how to make glasses available and affordable in rural, unserved areas – not as charity, but as a sustainable social business which addresses the root cause: lack of vision care infrastructure and eye care professionals.”
The Aloka Vision Programme, initiated by ZEISS, started in 2015 to find answers those questions. Since 2015, Aloka has been supported by develoPPP.de – a program which was set up by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to foster the involvement of the private sector at the point where business opportunities and development policy initiatives intersect.
Aloka is about entrepreneurship, business, customers and infrastructure. Not about charity or CSR alone.
The Hindi word Aloka (आलोक) means light, view and new perspectives. And new perspectives and unimpaired vision for people in rural areas is the main goal of Aloka. The ZEISS way is to establish a network of young entrepreneurs in rural areas who build their own business with support from ZEISS, non-governmental organizations and the project team. “Together with the team from Germany, we took our brand promise seriously: We have seen beyond and found a way to enable entrepreneurs to realize their ambitions,” says Sims. The aspirations of the entrepreneurs are clear: they want to start their own business by selling optical services and affordable eyeglasses. ZEISS is providing them with micro-credit for the initial fitting-out, basic training in optics and vision care, and delivery of the frames and lenses.
Wawerla adds, “Of course ZEISS, as a company which is committed to social responsibility for more than 125 years, invests lot of time and money in the program. But that’s support for the beginning phase and long-term support for scaling up the program and for public education. The core of Aloka was and remains a social business model, enabling entrepreneurs and partnering with organizations – a model whose benefits go beyond the impact of a purely charitable initiative.” The entrepreneurs learn basic vision care business over time and will be able to expand their business in the future.
But before the pilot phase started in May 2015, there were some simple questions to answer: How do we train people in basic optics? How can we support them in rural areas with experts? What should the product look like? How you order, pay for and deliver a pair of glasses when it must work without a sales force or an expensive ordering systems?
“The innovation here is definitely in finding answers to these simple questions”, says Namrata Borah, product trainer at ZEISS India and one of the driving forces behind the project. “In the state of Karnataka in southern India, we are cooperating with local initiatives, hired the first entrepreneurs and already started the pilot phase.” Learning by doing is crucial for further developments. “One of the first key lessons we learned is that digitalization is a prerequisite. Remote help from experts via Skype, ordering and payment via a messaging service and a tablet for on-site training and consultation make our model work. It helps keep the costs down, and it enables entrepreneurs to learn and increase their level of know-how. Last but not least, it is how we get our supply chain up and running.”
Small steps? Yes. But any initiative is better than just doing nothing.
With 16 partners all over India, mobile eye camps and 28 local entrepreneurs, the Aloka team of 3 optometrists tests 6,500 people's vision per month and provides up to 2,200 of them with a pair of glasses. Sometimes sales are sluggish, e.g. during monsoon season or elections when people have other concerns than going to an optical kiosk. Admittedly, the numbers are a bit low, especially considering how many needy people are still waiting for eye care. But the impact of the Aloka Vision Programme is increasing, and ZEISS is committed to growing it step by step. Customer surveys have proven that Aloka reaches the neediest people, and that they are extremely satisfied with the service, pricing, product and delivery.