Wazi Vision Brings Affordable Eyecare and Sustainable Glasses to Africa

Eye Exams in Uganda are expensive. And with a pair of glasses the treatment can cost up to 150 US-Dollar and is unaffordable for many children throughout Africa. With Wazi Vision, Brenda Katwesigye developed a smart and cheap way to make eye care affordable.

For many children in Africa, an eye exam let alone a pair of glasses is a dream never coming true. It is simply too expensive and many families cannot afford taking their children to get tested and buy them a pair of glasses if they need it. Many children therefore spend their entire school life squinting their eyes in order to read what is being written on the black board. And later on they continue to live their lives being handicapped because they cannot see properly.

Brenda Katwesigye, the founder of Wazi Vision in Uganda, is short-sighted herself. The idea for her company arose when Brenda went to an eye care centre to get tested herself and to get a pair of suitable glasses. She was working a full-time job at the time at an international consulting firm and she had health insurance that would cover up to 80 US-Dollars. You can surely imagine Brenda’s surprise when she still had to pay another 80 US-Dollars on top to get a pair of glasses. Brenda was startled and she started to wonder, what made eye testing and glasses so expensive that she, having a full-time job and health insurance, had to pay extra? How were poorer people ever to get treatment if it was so expensive? Brenda started researching and this was the beginning of Wazi Vision, a company that provides affordable eye testing and glasses made of waste material, such as plastic and paper. The first pair of glasses made of recycled material was produced in November 2016. Ever since then about 200 pairs of glasses have been given to children that are in need of a vision aid.

Vanessa Lee (Lensational), Ashish Pratap (DigiSitter) and Brenda Katwesigye (Wazi Vision) at the Vodafone Institute Accelerator for Female Empowerment F-Lane; Credit: Vodafone Institute

F-Lane: Tell us a little bit about the idea for Wazi Vision and how this idea started to turn into a business?

Brenda: I am short-sighted myself and went to get an eye test. At the time I was working for an international company and had the luxury of health insurance. Not many people can rely on having health insurance in Uganda so I felt to be in a very good position. My insurance would cover up to 80 US-Dollars and I thought it was by far enough. I had no idea. When I got tested and prescribed a pair of glasses, I had to pay another 80 US-Dollars on top. I couldn’t believe it! 160 US-Dollars for a simple eye test and a pair of glasses! How are people supposed to pay for this with no job or health insurance? And most importantly: Why is this so expensive? Is it the machine for the eye test? Is it the material or production cost for the glasses? Or is it the salary for the doctors who are doing the testing?

This entire topic had struck a nerve and I started researching. This was towards the end of 2015. I started to look into eye testing, what was needed and if there were any other ways to do these tests without the big (and possibly expensive) machines. I also researched material that could be turned into glass frames because I found out that these are actually the expensive part in the glasses. During my research I had a few ideas and I also started working on a business model. Because by the time I had gotten into the research I knew that I wanted to make eye care affordable. In June 2016 I officially founded Wazi Vision and my idea had become a business.

F-Lane:  How did you start? What were the first steps?

Brenda: Beside the research I was doing I started talking to people and looking for people at the same time to form a team. I was able to identify an artist, who could help me create a first design for a pair of glasses. Then I looked for someone, an engineer, who could help me develop a process to actually manufacture these glasses out of recycled material. Basically someone who could turn the drawings into 3D models that we could use as a basis to make the glasses. And also what kind of materials we could use. The first weeks were basically a time of consultation for me, speaking to many people and gathering a team around me to actually realize my idea. And along the way we also learned how the process worked and we were able to define a chain of production.

At that same time, I also found the women we could train to produce the glasses. They were referred to me by a local organization that provided work for women and we trained them and started working on producing the first pair of glasses – our prototype. By November 2016 we actually had our first pair at hand. It was not the most beautiful pair, I have to say. But it was a pair of glasses that we had made from waste material in a manufacturing process that we created by ourselves and our own research. It was a first sample we could use, it had a solid strength and we could see if it could be glazed etc. We used this first sample to further develop it. The next pair we made was simply a replication of this first sample and we continued going through iteration and iteration and this is how we started producing.

Up to this day we still haven’t nailed it yet. We are still in the developing process of making a really good and stylish pair of glasses. We still have many issues in our manufacturing – the process is not ideal and it still costs too much money per pair. But we are continuously working on that.

F-Lane:  Speaking of costs. How did you finance the first months in your project? Did you have any financial support?

Brenda: Initially when starting out, it was my own money I financed the project with. I was still working in my corporate job as a consultant and I would use my salary to cover basic costs. But, of course, it was not enough to build a business. At the beginning of November, just in time for starting the production, we received a grant from the US African Development Foundation and that’s what actually set us off.

F-Lane:  Are you still working as a consultant?

Brenda: No. I have left my corporate job to fully focus on my own business.

F-Lane:  How did your family and friends react when you told them about your idea and your decision to become a full-time entrepreneur?

Brenda: Firstly, the idea was very highly welcomed. Everyone I told about it was very enthusiastic and thought it was a very good idea. A lot of people were really excited. I also talked to my mentors about it – I actually have two mentors – and they were both very supportive and told me they could connect me to people and support me in any way possible.

Secondly, leaving my corporate job was actually something I had thought about for a very long time but I hadn’t talked about it to a lot of people. When the grant came through in November last year I finally had a first funding that would allow me to take my company to the next level. So I decided to take the leap and fully invest into my own business. My family and closest friends knew about it, of course, but I didn’t want to make a big fuss about it. Mostly, because I didn’t want to stress myself. When I knew the time had come and I was going to focus 100 percent on Wazi Vision, I simply left my job without openly discussing it.

F-Lane:  Was there a highlight moment since you started out with Wazi Vision?

Brenda: The first time we held a pair of glasses in our hands. That was a very memorable moment. It was a proud moment. Also, being able to hire my first employee – that was very exciting for me. Coming from being an employee and then becoming an employer myself, that felt good. Very fulfilling.  Those are definitely two moments that stand out.

F-Lane:  Was there one big challenge that was tough on you and the business? How did you solve it?

Brenda: The biggest challenge was probably coming up with a prototype. That entire process was very excruciating because at first we were supposed to get our glasses made by Makerere University, which is the main university in Uganda, for cost saving reasons. But when we were just starting out they closed down because of a strike. All our materials and resources were relying on the school to open again. That was a big setback and it really delayed our entire process.

This is a big learning by the way! Throughout this entire time I learned that you can plan as much as you want, things often go another way. You sometimes plan for two months but then it actually takes six months. It really is taking us a lot longer to get where we want to get. But it is steady. Slow, but steady.

Brenda Katwesigye at an F-Lane meeting, Credit: Vodafone Institute

So, for us the closing of the university was a huge setback, but we looked for alternatives while the university was closed and we actually came up with alternative material to plastic. It was a very exciting time. Instead of plastic we simply used paper for producing the glasses. The plastic was starting to become a problem and then we came up with using paper. And we also found other people who would support us in finding easier and faster ways to produce the glasses. Eventually we figured it out and we found somebody who could help us produce the glasses.

F-Lane: How many people do you actually employ today?

Brenda: We actually have three people that are working for Wazi Vision. One of them is working full-time and the other two part-time. And then we have our five female artisans who are producing the glasses.

F-Lane: What are the next steps for Wazi Vision? What are your plans for 2017?

Brenda: For this year we really want to grow our impact. We have been doing mobile eye tests in schools, moving from one school to another. So far we were able to test more than 1.500 children and we diagnosed about 200 kids who needed glasses. And we provided them with these glasses. What we want later this year is to provide glasses for more than 1.000 people. But we also want to open our first eye care centre, like a testing point, where people can go and know they will get a Wazi Vision testing and a pair of glasses at an affordable price.

We are also working on a smart phone application; it’s like a “do it yourself” eye test for home. We have the app already but we are working to achieve 80-90 per cent accuracy when doing the testing. If we can achieve that, this would be an amazing breakthrough in eye care in Uganda.

F-Lane: And where is Wazi Vision going to be in three years?

Brenda: In three years we hope to have an online store where people can buy glasses and have them shipped to their home. And we are also working on a high end designer line that we want to sell internationally at a higher price and then reinvest this money to make glasses for children even more cost effective.

F-Lane: Who inspires you, Brenda?

Brenda: I do look up to a lot of people, people in my own country actually. I don’t really go very far. There is a lady, I have never met her, but I’ve known about her, listened to her on the radio and seen her on TV. She is called Nancy Kacungira and for me her journey is an inspiration. And as a person my perception is that she is a very kind, open-hearted person, very warm, and very considerate about people. But she is also very ambitious and hard working.  She really gives her best from my perception. That is what really inspires me. A person that can strike a balance between being successful, ambitious and being on top but also being considerate about people and kind and approachable and open. I really like that.

F-Lane: What’s your tip for other aspiring female entrepreneurs?

Brenda: Grow thick skin! Founding a company is normally not an easy journey. There are many tough times and also disappointments. Because your venture is your heart, blood and mind. You have to be tough, determined and consistent. And don’t give up!

 

The interview was conducted and written by Christina Richter from FIELFALT, the community and blogazine for female empowerment. FIELFALT wants to encourage women to leave their comfort zones to dare something and to achieve their goals and realize their dreams.