Focusing on poor vision in poor places

Changing lives, a pair of spectacles at a time

Creative, high-tech or just sheer genius, some products and processes have saved lives or helped preserve the environment. Now why didn’t you think of that before?

GAMEREN (The Netherlands) - More than a decade ago, Mr 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 Mr 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 he finished his master's degree in industrial design and set out with his stepfather, Mr 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 has distributed 250,000 spectacles to people in 37 countries, making it a leading player in the global fight to correct poor vision.

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 is 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.

Some 250 million people around the world are estimated to have poor, uncorrected vision; the estimates go up to one billion.

A study by the World Health Organisation estimates more than US$400 billion (S$504 billion) of productivity is lost worldwide because people cannot see properly.

Based on work done in the 1960s by Nobel-prize winning physicist Luis Alvarez, the adjustable glasses - called Focusspecs - are made up 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.

They not only look cool - similar to the thick-rimmed hipster glasses often seen - but even come in seven colours, bearing names like Aqua, Frog, Hena and Raspberry. Not surprisingly, they've won several design competitions.

Mr In 't Veld calls it a classic example of a relatively simple innovation made available to fix a systemic and complicated problem.

Focus on Vision has ambitious goals to manufacture 10 million of its Focusspec glasses by 2020. About 80 per cent of its glasses are distributed by aid organisations.

One of the many people working with it, Professor John Friedman of the University of Utrecht who does research and development work in Namibia, has agreed to distribute 120 pairs of Focusspecs at a school there, focusing on students seated in the first and last rows in rural classrooms.

What he discovered was that many of those in the first rows had moved up to be able to see, while those in the back never realised what they were missing.