Social enterprise in India

Anna Gerrard, March 2015

Sightsavers and its partners need to think creatively about solving old problems in new and innovative ways

Why is it that people in developing countries don’t often have convenient access to basic health services or medicines, but Coca-Cola can be bought even in remote corners of Africa?

Sightsavers understands that the private sector has a powerful role to play in global poverty reduction, from improving supply chains to reducing the environmental footprint and increasing social impact. This understanding has led us to undertake an innovative project, which is focused on creating demand-driven solutions. To gain a greater understanding of consumer needs, a Sightsavers team (including me) is spending a few days living with families in the Kolkata slums.

Past private sector partnerships

Sightsavers has a long history of strategic partnerships with the private sector, and we understand the benefits of partnering with business in emerging and developing economies. In 2014, we partnered with Unilever to improve facial hygiene among rural people in Northern Kenya. Access to soap is an integral part of solving the problem of trachoma, but we also knew that Unilever’s years of experience in emerging markets and research in the field of hygiene would prove them to be an excellent partner. For a number of years, we’ve also partnered with Merck and Co. through its Mectizan® donation programme to eliminate river blindness.

From ‘beneficiaries’ to consumers

What’s required now is to take the next step – to start viewing people in developing countries as consumers, entrepreneurs and producers of products and services. This approach is rooted in the bottom of the pyramid concept developed by CK Prahalad, which promotes the view that poor people are not victims, or a burden, but value-conscious consumers.

Taking this approach means Sightsavers and its partners need to think creatively about solving old problems in new and innovative ways. The solutions centre on creating business models or working with businesses to solve societal problems, rather than designing services that are dependent upon donor funding. Not only is this approach more likely to be financially viable over the long term, but it also builds on consumer demand – placing people at the heart of the solution.

The new approach: creating demand

In India, we know that eye health is not highly valued among poor people living in urban areas, who are often struggling with immediate challenges (like earning a fair wage and making sure their children receive a decent education) while living in places with limited access to basic water and sanitation facilities. Parents have told us that their daughters will struggle to get married if they wear eyeglasses; one man explained that his job as a driver could be in jeopardy if customers think he has poor eyesight.

To combat these issues, we’re designing a new way to create primary eye health services and access to eyeglasses in a way that stimulates demand from the start. This consumer-centric approach requires an understanding of daily lives and the benefits that could be created by better eyesight. To gain this understanding, a Sightsavers team is going to spend a few days living with families in the Kolkata slums.

A for-profit solution

The findings from India will help Sightsavers find a way to make wearing glasses an attractive prospect that people would be prepared to pay for – moving it out of the ‘eye health’ box and into the ‘fashion’ box. By doing so, it should increase the frequency by which people have eye tests, as well as reducing the stigma of wearing eyeglasses, particularly for women. The solution will be profit-making, because we know that the only way to create a scalable eye health solution in a country as large as India is to be able to cover start-up and working capital costs, ongoing operating costs, and the cost of capital. We hope that by taking this ambitious approach, poor people in urban areas will no longer be reliant on long-term handouts to receive quality eye health services in their communities. Watch this space!

By Anna Gerrard, Private Sector Engagement & Development Manager at Sightsavers

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