India Interior

Long strides of the barefoot optician

Preeti Mehra | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 25, 2016

Man of vision: Ilush Khan (21), optician-entrepreneur in Mathura - Preeti Mehra

Eye Mitras in UP

Eye Mitra services

Eye Mitras take eye care and optical products to village communities across the country

Twenty-one-year-old Ilush Khan proudly stands behind the counter of his shop in the new shopping area of Mandi Samti in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura District. Behind him on the shelves are spectacle frames of various shapes, sizes and colours.

He has had two months of intensive training in vision testing and later hand-holding for almost a year towards establishing his own venture.

Khan is among 1,200 certified Eye Mitras (friends of eyes) who have emerged as barefoot opticians in 14 states of the country. These village-level entrepreneurs run their own small outfits, testing the eyes of the local population and setting up eye camps.

At Mandi Samti, implements in hand, Khan gets ready to escort Puran Singh to his tiny clinic, tucked away in one corner of the shop, to check the eyesight of the highway driver. He will also look out for problems such as cataract, glaucoma or retinal disorders. If Puran Singh needs glasses of standard power, Khan can provide them in a jiffy from his substantial Ready to Clip (R2C) glasses itinerary provided by manufacturer Essilor. For any other complex care, he will be referred to an eye specialist.

“I had completed my BSc and was teaching when I heard of this programme from a friend who knew the mobiliser in our village,” says Khan. After the training, he received the eye-testing kit free of cost and, in a stroke of luck, even received funding from a Frenchman as part of the ‘Adopt an Eye Mitra’ scheme.

The Eye Mitra project is the brainchild of eye-care company Essilor through its inclusive business wing 2.5 New Vision Generation. It was launched around three years ago as part of a strategy to improve awareness of, and access to vision care for underserved communities.

“The programme explores ways of building sustainable eye-care platforms in areas without the traditional infrastructure. To deliver necessary, as well as aspirational eye products we have innovated on materials, styles and colours so that villagers who want a choice have it readily,” explains Jayanth Bhuvaraghan, Chief Corporate Mission Officer at Essilor International.

The first training centre came up in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, in 2012. The programme is easily scalable. An implementation partner, along with company executives, scouts for young girls and boys who have finished Std X and have the potential to become eye entrepreneurs.

About a dozen candidates, including several middle-aged unemployed persons, are then chosen for the two-month training session.

“The criteria is that the person should be able to absorb technical knowhow, have the ability to conduct eye camps, make available space for a shop and clinic, and, above all, have the enthusiasm to be an Eye Mitra,” says Mukul Sarma, UP project manager, 2.5 New Vision Generation.

KV Mahesh, all-India business head of the initiative, explains how apart from technical eye-care, the entrepreneur also learns the nuances of managing the business, ordering products, keeping inventory and selling vision correction as well as aspirational products. “We have the concept of vision ambassadors, who traverse the last mile, and Essmarts, which are vans that serve as an interface between manufacturers and retailers.”

Bhuvaraghan says the programme was started to address the drastic lack of eye-care professionals in rural areas. “Now we have two to three levels of engagement. As the eye-testing kit costs ₹25,000, in the Christmas of 2014 we roped in the philanthropic Essilor Vision Foundation to begin an ‘Adopt an Eye Mitra’ campaign, where the donor gives $500 and adopts a barefoot optician by paying for their needs and seeing them through their entrepreneurial career. This got tremendous response. Today, one-third of our Eye Mitras are adopted by citizens in Singapore, France and the US.”

According to the company, an independent study by Dalberg Global Development Advisors shows that the initiative is not only fulfilling its primary objective of improved access to vision care, but also delivering clear and tangible benefits for individuals, their families and communities. For Essilor, too, it has been a brand-building exercise, where it has innovated its offerings to give rural customers affordable but aspirational eye-care products.

Durgesh Tiwari, who runs the BASIX Academy For Building Lifelong Employability (BEABLE) and partners with Essilor to train barefoot opticians in Mathura and Rajasthan, is happy that the programme has progressed even further.

“Today the Eye Mitra has become part of the India skilling programme and, besides the usual certification, they are being recognised under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) scheme,” he says.

Published on March 25, 2016
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