Interview with Martin Aufmuth, 1st prize winner in the empowering people. Award 2012

Martin AufmuthWe asked Martin Aufmuth, our first prize winner in 2012, about his project, the latest developments and how winning the Award benefitted him.

Martin, we’d like to know how you came up with the idea of the OneDollarGlasses.

Actually I read a book by Paul Polack about the effects of living with uncorrected refractive errors and how much life can be improved with a pair of glasses. I was fascinated by the idea of developing eye-glasses with simple materials that were affordable for people living in poverty-stricken areas. After a whole lot of experiments, I had a breakthrough using spring steel wire: This material allows you to bend the frames by hand and the lenses can be fitted without any special tools. The hand-bending machine I developed doesn’t need any electricity and it doesn’t take long to learn how to use it.

How important is it for the glasses to be produced in the regions themselves?

This was the most important aspect of the project from the outset: Moving the production chain to the country where the product is going to be used and ensuring that people there can help themselves on a long-term basis. In this way, the glasses don’t only benefit those that need glasses but also the people that are producing them.

What other criteria were important during development?

Although the glasses are very cheap, they are still an investment for people. This means that they need to last as long as possible. However, quality also means that the glasses look good and people really want to wear them. Also the sale of the glasses has to take place using a decentralized structure. The optician (and all his equipment) has to go to the people otherwise supply is virtually impossible.

How high are the production costs? Who pays for it and how does it get to where it should be?

The costs for a production unit, in other words the bending apparatus, tools and seed capital in the form of materials for 500 glasses, is approx. 2,500 Euro. The lenses come from China; we have managed to find a manufacturer who produces the lenses from polycarbonate at a reasonable cost. Our Association ensures that everything gets to where it should be and also ensures training for future opticians. The start-up costs, which also include education for the trainees, are made up of donations. We try and win the support of large organizations for the project so we can use their infrastructure.

Can the opticians earn anything from the glasses? The value of the materials is presumably just a little lower than the sales price?

The value of the materials is approx. one dollar and they are sold for a price of two to three daily wages. The mark-up needed for an optician to cover his costs and also feed his family, depends on the country. The price has to be aligned to the average daily wage. In Burkina Faso, for example, this is significantly lower than in Bolivia, which means the glasses have to be sold at a cheaper price there. This isn’t a problem, however, as the opticians expect a lower salary there.

How can a sustainable business model be rolled out with the OneDollarGlasses?

Personally I think something is sustainable when it can work and be developed without external help. A central benefit of our concept is that following the start of sales, all the costs involved in running the business can be financed by the sale of the glasses. This particularly pertains to the wages in the country, and procurement of materials for the production of further glasses. In Rwanda there are new ideas for the technical process; in Bolivia new machines have been developed – the concept has become independent in the best sense of the word.

Which countries are you active in and what are your plans for the prize money you won in the “empowering people. Award?“

We have been in Bolivia since summer 2012, the project in Rwanda has been in operation since April 2013. The government supports us in both these countries. Last summer we had a training session in Burkina Faso where one of the trained opticians from Rwanda helped out. The fact that skills and knowledge are exchanged across countries is an important aspect of sustainability. In January last year a team was in Ethiopia to start a pilot project. Since we won the “empowering people. Award“, we have been inundated with enquiries from other countries. We have used the prize money to train people, supply them with the machines and to set up sustainable structures in the target countries. Our goal is to expand the project as quickly as possible and at the moment we are active with projects in Burkina Faso, Malawi and Bolivia. There are approx. 25 people working for OneDollarGlasses in Burkina Faso and they sell about 100 glasses per month so the project nearly finances itself.  In Malawi we have recently trained the first “Good Vision Agents“ who are now starting to sell the glasses.

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