Sight: a gender issue that can be solved with entrepreneurialism
Today, in Africa alone, approximately 26.3 million people suffer from some form of vision impairment, with limited access to treatment. Across the globe, vision impairment and poor vision more broadly remain one of the world’s largest unaddressed disabilities.
However, the effects of this global health problem are unequally felt. Research reveals that of all cases of vision impairment across the globe, women are disproportionately affected, representing two-thirds of all cases.
Inequalities like this very often go overlooked, but they have an enormous impact on people’s lives. Today, visual impairments are preventing women and girls around the world from accessing education available to them, thus reducing literacy rates and school attainment.
Poor vision can also drastically reduce workplace productivity, particularly for women working in intricate, labour intensive jobs, such as factory and farming work. The World Health Organisation has estimated that the global economic cost of poor eyesight on productivity alone is $270 billion a year.
On International Women’s Day, we must recognise the huge implications this disability has on the education, productivity, and personal development of women across the globe.
However, there is good news – solutions to this global problem lies within our reach. There are 2.5 billion people around the world today suffering from poor vision, but it’s estimated that 80 percent of all cases of poor vision could be addressed with a simple pair of glasses – a 700-year-old invention.
So what is holding us back, and why are women more affected?
Ultimately, the fact that women and girls are more likely to suffer from vision problems is not due to biological differences, but a result of unequal social structures.
In many African nations, as in many countries across the world, women traditionally earn less and take on the lead care role within the family, in which they feed other family members first, consume less-nutritious meals and feel less able to leave the family home for their own personal errands
For example, more women remain blind due to cataracts because their chance to get treatment is lower than for men. In low and middle income countries, men are almost twice more likely to get cataract surgery than women.
This is amplified by the fact that women are exposed to greater risk-factors, such as prolonged proximity to children with transmissible eye infections.
Our first step towards achieving genuine progress in tackling this global health challenge of improving universal access to eye care is recognising these complexities and committing to a more collaborative approach on a global scale.
Social structures are developed over many years, and are resistant to change. We cannot expect to be able to topple such systems and practices overnight.
However, we can do much more to improve access to vision treatment for everyone, regardless of gender, socio-economic bracket or location. Today, across Africa, on average, there is one ophthalmologist per 400,000 people, with only seven training centres for the entire continent.
However, I believe we stand at a vital tipping point. We live in an age of radical and disruptive entrepreneurial thinking, when advances in technology mean previously unthinkable solutions are well within our reach.
In 2016, I founded Clearly, a new campaign designed to accelerate and revolutionise our approach to world vision. As part of the campaign, we ran a global competition, the Clearly Vision Prize, which was designed to source and support the businesses advancing this sector – from diagnosis through to supply chain and distribution.
The first prize went to South Africa-based Vula Mobile. Vula is a smartphone application designed to overcome the shortage of specialist eye-care consultants in developing nations. Initially backed by the SAB Foundation, the app allows primary healthcare workers to share results of tests and scans with specialists who, from miles away, can offer a diagnosis or treatment.
We also recognised PEEK, a Kenya-based startup, with a lifetime achievement award. PEEK allows health care workers to take quality retinal images, capable of assisting in detecting cataracts, macular degeneration, diabetes and glaucoma, with only a smartphone and an inexpensive clip-on lens.
With smartphone connections across Africa reaching 226m – almost double last year, the potential for these innovations to transform access to basic eye care and vision treatment is limitless. New technologies like these have the capacity to overcome long-term social and economic barriers, and deliver basic health care to everyone, regardless of gender.
The economic incentive is there. Current rates of poor vision are costing the global economy an estimated $3 trillion a year. In Kenya alone, PwC estimates that investing $1 in tackling vision impairment results in a $3.56 economic gain for the country.
Tackling the world’s largest unaddressed disability is vital to breaking down gender inequality and social divisions on a global scale.
James Chen is Founder of Clearly, a new global campaign to address the problem of poor vision across the globe