VisionSpring: A Model TOMS Shoes Would be Wise to Adopt

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The world of international development has so many buzzwords floating around, it’s hard to know what is legitimate and what isn’t. Over the past 10 years or so, the phrase “sustainable development” has entered the lexicon and appears here to stay. While there are a number of definitions for the term, ultimately it has to do with creating programs that benefit and can be taken over by local populations long after international organizations have left the scene. Often times the objective is to create jobs or business opportunities, which has been the goal of services such as microfinance.

Much has been made about the TOMS Shoes, “buy a pair, give a pair” model and the critics point to the issues that surround every project which gives away free items in the developing world.

• It can crowd out local manufactures unable to compete on price (free).
• They’re not manufacturing the goods in the countries they serve and therefore are not creating jobs.
• It’s not sustainable because shoes wear out and the health problems Toms wants to solve could be better served by a donation to an NGO in the public health sector

Depending on the region and situation, these are not really disputable opinions, but facts. There is a lot of literature about the impact of donating goods to developing countries and a lot of those impacts are negative.

However, that’s not to say there isn’t something here. A company called VisionSpring is working on another newly popular initiative, which provides eyeglasses for those in developing societies. Ironically (or not), TOMS Shoes is beginning their foray into the “buy one, give one” model for eyeglasses. But VisionSpring is adopting a model that TOMS would be wise to adopt if the company is truly looking for a greater impact on the “give one” end.

While you the customer pay an inflated price for your glasses (much like TOMS Shoes), you are subsidizing the cost of a second pair for someone who can’t afford them. However, the key is that they are not given away. Instead VisionSpring aims to hire and train (for three days) VisionSpring entrepreneurs who receive a “business in a bag”. They then conduct basic eye assessments and refer patients/customers to a VisionSpring optical shop or local eye hospital. These entrepreneurs sell the glasses for a couple of dollars, which allows them to sustain their business while providing glasses at an affordable price. Although studies have been mixed, it is generally believed that people who purchase items as opposed to receive them for free use them more effectively and often (apparently the jury is still out on mosquito nets). Also, the organization conducts needs assessments on glasses in local communities. This appears to be in regards to price, function and style.

Does this model have flaws? Sure. Myself and probably the optometrists out there are wondering how someone can be qualified to assess eye problems after three days of training, not to mention the capital outlay VisionSpring will need to establish VisionSpring optical shops throughout countries and possibly rural areas. However a number of the fundamental flaws in the TOMS model are being addressed here. This is not the first time this model has been suggested (long read), but shows crucial points often missed from giving things away. Within this model, needs should absolutely not be dictated by western consumers and the ability to create jobs and local economies around key items such as eyeglasses is entirely feasible.

 Image Credit by bern ang via Flickr under a CC license

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