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Selling eye-glasses in Africa. An interview with Jan in 't Veld

Why did you choose to end a successful career in the steel to get started in social entrepreneurship?

During the Christmas holidays of 1996, I decided to change my life and start something completely different. I quit my job and went on vacation with my four children, first in Brazil. In this country, I visited cocoa plantations and was surprised by the very low loads operators, despite the number of workers. On a second trip, I wanted to see how the employees of steel suppliers lived. We went by car. I had never seen such misery and I was shocked and marked forever. A little girl without shoes, rushed to the car, followed by her father, who was not working. I asked him: "What is your dream?". She told me she wanted to be a teacher. We went into a store to buy her clothes and found a job for her father. Today, I know she has realized her dream!

Today you distribute eyeglasses in Africa. What problems have you identified?

During a university exhange in Tanzania my step-son Frederik noted that nobody wore glasses. He started to examine this and found a WHO survey indicating that a billion people were in need of glasses but could not afford or did not have access to ophthalmologists and opticians. This was the start of the development adjustable glasses: two lenses that slide on each other to provide the desired focus. A pair even ended up on the nose of the sister of the Queen of the Netherlands!

What is the impact of Foundation Focus on your vision?

We distribute eyeglasses in thirty-six countries of the Third World, with non-profit associations. The market is important: only 5% of people in Africa wear glasses, against 50-55% in Europe. Our glasses are sold between 2 and 5 euros. Behind every pair of glasses sold, there is an impact on the local economy of the country in which the glasses are distributed, $ 400 per carrier. We see this is a real anti-crisis solution.

What is your business model?

My step-son and I have created a foundation based on private financing. We canvassed large companies. It is a choice: do fundraising campaigns takes time and the banks are more easy money to a private organization and associations.

The original interview (French language) is published at the L'Express website

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