Word of mouth marketing can be a most effective way to get a message across, and that goes for international eye care too. The blind simply will not receive sight-restoring care unless they are informed that quality services exist, and are shown how to access them. In the developing world, getting this message to poor and remote areas is no easy feat.

The key is to get the right message into the hands of the right people, and the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) Diane L. Wood Humanity Fund has made sure that essential eye health information is available to the blind, especially women and girls, in some of the most remote parts of eastern Africa.

Here’s how:

In 2011, the BCGEU partnered with Seva Canada, and began providing funding to help bridge the gender gap in Tanzania and get eye care to those who need it most. Their funds have supported Seva’s microfinance program, which educates women in microfinance groups about eye health and creates a word-of mouth advertising network for eye care services. It’s an innovative and low-cost program that partners with existing networks of women who are involved in the many microfinance organizations in low-income countries.

Photo courtesy of Peter Mortifee

Photo courtesy of Peter Mortifee

The BCGEU, together with the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada and dedicated individual donors, have educated hundreds of women to become eye care advocates within their communities, ensuring that life-changing eye care is accessible to all. After receiving free eye health training, these women provide information and counseling about Seva’s services to those who would otherwise never know that care is available to them.

Microfinance members are leading the way for women and girls to move up the socioeconomic ladder in the developing world. Training them to recognize eye problems increases their confidence and their positions within their communities. They are happy to work as volunteers to provide this much-needed service. Their communities benefit because so many blind people are found at virtually no cost. The blind can then receive care, see again, and reach their true potential. More often than not, these patients are women and children who are not easily found through traditional outreach.

photo courtesy of (c) Peter Mortifee

photo courtesy of (c) Peter Mortifee

Because of the support of BCGEU and its thousands of diverse union members, thousands more of the most marginalized people in Tanzania have been referred for eye care through the microfinance program. The program has been so successful that it has expanded into Ethiopia.

Seva asked Ken Curry of BCGEU a few questions about the Diane L. Wood Humanity Fund and the great work that they do:

Q. Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about BCGEU?

Ken: The BCGEU is one of the most diverse unions in British Columbia. We represent approximately 67,000 men and women in more than 550 bargaining units. Our union can trace its beginnings back to the early 1900s when provincial government employees formed an association to address their working conditions. Since then, the union has organized thousands of workers outside the government service.

Our members include the women and men who protect children, provide financial assistance to the poor, protect the environment and manage our natural resources, care for the mentally ill in institutions, staff provincial correctional facilities, fight forest fires, and provide the government’s technical and clerical services. BCGEU members instruct and provide support and technical services in colleges and institutes. They provide community health care services to seniors and others in their own homes and long-term care facilities, and enable the developmentally disabled to live in group homes. Our members provide financial services in banks and credit unions, and work in hotels, department stores, First Nations governments, theatres and casinos. They plow our highways during the winter.

Q. What is the BCGEU Diane L. Wood Humanity Fund and why was it formed?

Ken: In 1999 delegates to BCGEU’s convention passed a resolution to establish the BCGEU International Solidarity and Humanities Fund. Later, the fund was renamed the BCGEU Diane L. Wood International Solidarity and Humanity Fund in recognition of the international work done by former secretary-treasurer Diane Wood. The fund provides financial support for projects that partner us with unions, community groups and nongovernmental organizations in different parts of the world.

Q: What are the Fund’s objectives?

Ken: The Fund’s objective is to provide concrete support to the work of the BCGEU’s International Solidarity Committee. This committee raises awareness of international solidarity issues among union members, and its goals include promoting social and economic justice, solidarity and the values of trade unionism; supporting fair trade initiatives; supporting public services as a foundation of a democratic society; and promoting the Millennium Development Goals.

Q: How does the BCGEU Diane L. Wood Humanity Fund raise money for its projects?

Ken: BCGEU contributes 20 cents per member per month to the fund to help support a number of projects and partner our organization with different unions, community groups and nongovernmental organizations.

Q: Why do you support Seva’s microfinance work in eastern Africa?

Ken: One of the guiding principles in determining which projects to endorse is work towards supporting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. These include universal education, gender equality, child and maternal health and global partnership, all of which are embodied in Seva’s microfinance work.

The loyal support of the BCGEU has made the continuation and expansion of this innovative microfinance partnership possible. Their support over the years has ensured that essential eye care services are available to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Thank you to the BCGEU and its union members!

Photo courtesy of Peter Mortifee

Photo courtesy of Peter Mortifee

Ashoka, Contributor

Originally posted on Forbes.com March 31, 2014

Scaling up innovation is rarely as simple as investing in a company. The best social innovations aren’t companies – rather they are social movements, coalitions co-created by businesses, social sector organisations and governments working together.

But how do you fund and scale up a movement?

The remarkable story of Aravind Eye Hospitals offers some insights. Aravind is a chain of eye hospitals founded in India that pioneered a new way of delivering ultra-low cost cataract surgery for the rural poor.

Indian Girl photo by (c) Brett Marsh

Indian Girl photo by (c) Brett Marsh

In 1992, a social entrepreneur named David Green, (Seva Foundation Board Member), who had been working with Aravind to develop their social business model, teamed up with Aravind and Seva to set up a company to make the lenses needed for cataract surgery.

An intraocular lens used in cataract surgeries beside a Canadian dime.

An intraocular lens used in cataract surgeries beside a Canadian dime.

Green had noticed that the world market for such lenses was dominated by a handful of firms who were charging huge margins. At that time, the market price for such lenses was around $300. Aurolab, the company that Green founded, began selling them at $10, profitably.

The combination of Aurolab’s low cost lenses and Aravind’s revolutionary delivery model together led to a global surge in affordable eye surgery. Today, Aravind hospitals and others based on their model perform nearly one million surgeries each year, and Aurolab has approximately 9% of the global market share.

Aurolab Intraocular lenses being used at an eye camp in Nepal. (c) Deanne Berman

Aurolab Intraocular lenses being used at an eye camp in Nepal. (c) Deanne Berman


Aurolab intraocular lenses being used at a Seva eye camp in Nepal

Aurolab intraocular lenses being used at a Seva eye camp in Nepal

The Aravind-Aurolab case study provides valuable insights into how the right kind of funding model can help social / business partnerships scale up:

1. Use philanthropy for start-up costs and investment for growth

The start-up social business is often unattractive to commercial investors, because the risk/return of such ventures rarely meets their requirements. It is tough enough raising capital for a commercial enterprise, let alone one that deliberately seeks out low income customers. Sometimes there is only one funder who can step into fill this early stage gap – the philanthropist.

“I could never have launched Aurolab by raising money from venture capitalists,” says David Green. “We could not have offered them the financial returns they need.”

Instead Green raised a substantial grant from Seva that enabled him to build a state-of-the-art factory in Madurai, India. Freed from the financial constraints of venture capital, Aurolab did not need to price in margins to provide for a high cost of capital, and could instead price to maximize distribution.

By having philanthropic capital funding the start-up risk, and then bringing in investors to scale up proven projects, social business partnerships can often scale their impact much quicker.

2. Scale through Replication

It’s not a movement if only one player is involved. True social change takes place when others adopt and replicate the model. Once Aravind had proven the effectiveness of its model, it began to spread that knowledge to others, setting up a consultancy LAICO to share the knowledge with as many partners as possible. Today the model has been replicated in more than two dozen countries around the world.   Philanthropic funding, with support from Seva and others, was the ideal funding source to support this strategy of scaling through replication.

3. Create a Campaign

Scratch the surface of a new social business venture, and you’ll often find a campaign to change consumer behaviour and build a new market. Consider the challenges of launching a recycling business at a time when households were unused to the idea of sorting waste into “recyclable” and “non-recyclable.” Yet these challenges were overcome – today such practices are the norm in much of Europe.

Here social business partnerships may be ideal. Governments and foundations can play a key role in public education, highlighting social causes such as the need for recycling. Businesses can focus on providing products and services to meet the market need. And donations and investment can be channelled to each accordingly.

4. Find Different Roles For Different Funders

Sometimes investors want to support a social enterprise, but have very different risk appetites. If donors don’t need a financial return, why not ask them to fund the more risky or purely social aspects of a venture?

For example, Fair Finance, a UK-based social enterprise which provides loans and debt advice to financially excluded individuals in London, entered into a partnership with several commercial banks to greatly increase the size of its lending. By first finding social investors who were willing to underwrite any expected “first losses” in the lender’s portfolio as well as working capital, Fair Finance was able to bring on board the more risk-averse banks. As a result, it raised nearly ten times the amount of funding that it could have raised from grants alone.

Donors and investors are used to operating in different worlds. Increasingly, by working together, they are finding the formula for scaling up social innovation.

So Girls Can See

March 10th, 2014
Cambodia Photo - Mother and baby girl

Mong Seav & her grandmother Lau Kha (c) Ellen Crystal photography

Mong Kong Seav, a 14-month old Cambodian girl had a tearing, watery left eye which caused her family a great deal of concern. Luckily, thanks to Seva donors, a village screening took place near her home. Her grandmother, Lau Kha, took her to have her eye looked at while her parents were working in the fields.

Mong’s bottom eye lid had not fully developed and was not thick enough to keep her tears in her eye. The field nurse advised her grandmother that Mong’s eye should fix itself and she was given antibiotics to prevent infection.

Happy and relieved, Mong and Lau went home to tell the little girl’s parents that her eye and vision were going to be ok. Mong’s future is bright and full of possibilities!

This isn’t the case for all women and girls; this International Women’s Day let’s continue to break the barriers for women and girls so they can access eye care.


Tapho-5814low rez

(c)Ellen Crystal photography

Half of the world’s population is made up of women and girls. Women and girls don’t go blind more often than men and boys. Yet, two thirds of the world’s blind are female.

Why? Because women and girls are far less likely than men and boys to receive eye care services due to social, cultural and economic factors.

Seva Canada has taken a leadership role in a global initiative to reduce the inequity. The first step was to prove that the inequity exists and holds true for both industrialized and developing nations and across all types of preventable and treatable eye conditions.

The second step was to identify barriers women and girls face in accessing care and develop strategies to overcome those barriers. Simple strategies are often the most effective: provide counseling to the families, offer free transportation and bring eye care to people’s doorsteps with community ophthalmology programs.

Sharing our findings and strategies with the global eye care community was the third step. We are happy to report that more and more organizations and eye care programs are implementing strategies to reach women and girls.

Does Seva favour the treatment of women and girls over the treatment of men and boys? Absolutely not. By implementing these strategies we have doubled the overall utilization of eye care services by both sexes and now a much greater proportion of those treated are women and girls.

Tapho-5787low rez

(c) Ellen Crystal photography

Love is Blind

February 14th, 2014

When 46-year old Yangchen married her husband Pema, she was blind from cataracts, and had never seen his face. Now, three years later, Yangchen can look into the eyes of the man she loves. She considers herself “the happiest woman on earth!”

Yangchen before her cataract surgery

Even before she was blind, Yangchen had led a lonely life. She didn’t have a family and had been on her own for many years, farming a barley field in remote Tibet and looking after a small flock of sheep.

5 years ago, Yangchen became blind from cataracts and could no longer remain independent.

There was no one to look after Yangchen or her farm, so she had to leave her home. Though she was only 46, she was taken to a nursing home to live with a group of elders. There, she would at least be safe and she would have company for the first time in years.

At the nursing home Yangchen met Pema, a 70 year-old man, who was kind to her and became a close friend. He helped her cope with her blindness in any way he could, guiding her around the nursing home and assisting her with tasks.

Yangchen and Pema quickly fell in love.

With each other to lean on, they left the nursing home to return to Yangchen’s farm in the countryside. There, Pema took good care of his beloved Yangchen. He cultivated the land and herded the sheep, and gave Yangchen much love and attention.

They lived a humble life, subsisting on little, but together they were happy. Yangchen’s blindness was the only darkness in their lives. She dreamed that one day she could ease the burden of her blindness and bring him joy.

One day, Pema heard about a Seva eye camp in the area, and brought Yangchen to see if her blindness could be cured. She received a free cataract operation, thanks to Seva Canada donors.