One pair of glasses for everyone.
Commitment. A sighted person can hardly imagine what it means not to be able to see properly: writing, reading, sewing, repairing things, harvesting ... everything can hardly be accomplished. Nevertheless, 700 million people cannot afford glasses. The secondary school teacher Martin Aufmuth has set himself the goal of changing this.
April 2012, it is hot in the hospital of Kasana near Uganda's capital Kampala. Just like the weeks before had been hot. Over 30 degrees Celsius. And dusty. And according to Martin Aufmuth, it doesn't matter. For him, this last evening in town, when he packs his bending machine, wires and tools, is a very special one. "It actually works," he marvels silently into himself.
In two intensive weeks he measured the eyes of 800 people and sold them his self-developed one-dollar glasses. People who never had glasses before. They believed they'd never be able to afford their own glasses. Who couldn't work because they didn't see anything. "These people really wanted my glasses - they really liked them. And they were willing to pay a full day's wages for it. That was a very satisfying moment."
The man with the white hair tied to the plait smiles briefly and then looks to the ground. No doubt: This moment was much, much more than just very satisfying. It was the confirmation for the fact that he, Martin Aufmuth, secondary school teacher for mathematics and physics from Erlangen, with strength, ingenuity and courage something really big has put on the legs.
Today, 300 people work for the association EinDollarBrille, and Aufmuth has already sold 80000 pairs of glasses in Africa and South America. Spontaneously, he says, he founded the association in 2012 with the help of six teachers from his school. 180 of the current comrades-in-arms are volunteers - entrepreneurs, bank managers, students, committed people. They help with project development, fundraising, marketing and public relations. But everything goes through Martin Aufmuth's desk. For him, hardly a day comes to an end under twelve working hours, and definitely not a day goes by without him wishing he didn't have a few more hands. "But I guess that's the way all business people do. Work never stops. When I've finished one topic, the next are already in line."
Martin Aufmuth was not dissatisfied with himself and his life at that time. "With the global themes, however, I always had the feeling that there was nothing I could do on my own. I kept telling my wife: "You'd have to, I'd love to. And sometime on one of our evening walks with my wife she looks at me and says: "Yeah, go ahead, then. I think that's one of the sentences she regrets from time to time in her life."
Because Martin Aufmuth makes. He is combing through the donations almanac of the German Central Institute for Social Issues (DZI) and is looking for an organization that lives sustainable help for self-help. An initiative in Malawi holds workshops in development aid centres in their country: Participants create a vision - how could our lives be? Then they make the decision - what do we change? And implement this consistently.
Aufmuth thinks to himself: "Why don't I do that too? He plans to acquire 200,000 euros over the next ten years to finance a development centre in Malawi.
But you can't do that with a teacher's salary. So he invents his own fundraising platform, the BallonMillion: The initiators there put the last 100 euros on it, if 9999 supporters give at least 100 euros for a development aid project presented there. 550000 Euro come together. Martin Aufmuth thus finances two centres in Malawi and Mozambique and recognises that an individual can also - or especially - make a difference if he sets himself a clear goal and pursues it ironically.
In 2009, he organized Germany's largest climate protection competition for children and young people. In a computer game, a rainbow mouse with saved CO₂ can be fed. 40000 participants initiate climate protection measures at home - new refrigerators, green electricity, energy-saving lamps and more.
"It was also an important exercise for me: I needed a large number of supporters, it was a global project and it had a clear direction. I've learned a lot, especially that most people underestimate their ability to make a difference."
During this time Aufmuth reads the book "Out of Poverty" by Paul Polak about the need for glasses for the Third World. The WHO puts this at 700 million units worldwide. The estimated loss of income caused by people not being able to work or learn, or no longer being able to do so, is around USD 202 billion per year for the 158 million short-sighted alone. This is more than the total development aid disbursed worldwide. In 2011, for example, this amounted to 134.04 billion US dollars.
By chance, the next day he sees a pair of ready-to-wear glasses for one euro in the one-euro shop. "I could barely understand that: In the rich western world, glasses are sold for one euro, and in poor developing countries there is no such thing." He begins to deal more intensively with the subject of eyeglasses.
Of course, he's not the first to want to end this abomination. But apparently the first to question why well-meant projects don't work. He learns from the project of an NGO: "If you drive into the hinterland and miss your eyes, and then deliver the glasses months later, you usually can't find the people there anymore. Eye measurement and eyeglass adjustment must obviously coincide in time. Even the provision of old glasses is not a solution: the probability that used glasses will match the visual acuity of both eyes of the recipient is extremely low; the costs for expert reprocessing are high.
And above all: At some point the lenses of every pair of glasses will be scratched. But there is no replacement because the optician has long since left. "What is needed are glasses that look good, are cheap and almost indestructible. It must be possible to manufacture the spectacles on site using simple means."
In 2010, he began experimenting with wires made of various materials in the cellar of his house. He tries to bend them and finds that most of them are much too soft. In the end, he encounters spring rust wire. It is harder, robust, kind to the skin, does not rust and is processed in cars - the production of large quantities is therefore guaranteed. "It was perfect - and also beautiful, because it looks similar to Titanflex."
In the next step, he develops a bending machine that does not require electricity - because this is not available everywhere and always in developing countries. Now he orders glasses from China - cheap polycarbonate with a hardened surface that won't break if someone sits on it. He orders the thicknesses -6 to +6 dioptres, always in 0.5-step intervals. "In most cases, that's enough for good vision."
In the electrical industry, shrink tubing is used as cable sheathing - Aufmuth uses this to pull it over the temple of the glasses. Over fire it shrinks so that it exactly matches the circumference of the wire and becomes a good pressure protection for the sensitive skin behind the ears and on the nose.
So that the glasses are worn with pleasure, they should also be beautiful. Aufmuth is looking for coloured pearls with which he can decorate his glasses with minimal effort. He finds the Czech glass beads Rocailles - they fit perfectly on the one-millimeter wire and are available in large quantities.
Martin Aufmuth spent a year tinkering with his one-dollar glasses, then he was satisfied with the result and, together with a master optician, joined a group of doctors who travelled to Uganda to operate on people with glaucoma. While the container with the expensive equipment of the doctors is misdirected and arrives only after one week, Aufmuth has everything with him: his 30x30x30 centimeter bending machine, the small suitcase with the glasses and the optical panels to record the eye strength, the specially made tool, all together worth around 2500 euros. "Aha," he thinks, "that's one of the strengths of my system, too."
The master optician spreads out around 1000 old glasses on the floor. There are no shelves, and neither are measurements. Let people just take what they need. "That didn't work," says Aufmuth. "Completely unnerved, we finally packed the old glasses and brought them to the storage room. Then we started to provide the people with our own glasses, made locally by our African helpers. After two weeks, about 800 people had received glasses, even the provincial governor and his wife were happy when they received reading glasses from us."
And Martin Aufmuth experiences this moment when he knows that his idea works.
Since then, his life has changed. In 2015 he is released from his teaching duties and becomes managing director of the association. Works now 70 to 80 hours per week for his idea. "I thought I'd take the plane down, explain it to somebody in the village and they'll be fine."
A mistake - it quickly becomes apparent that the project requires a professional organisation on site. Today, Martin Aufmuth is setting up entire centres, training six people per bending machine as spectacle manufacturers, who produce around 20000 pairs of spectacles per year. The centres will later be managed by a local manager, who will be in charge of the infrastructure, the warehouse and also the quality control. "Our experience is that if we don't check every place, we're screwed every place. We also have to carry out quality controls on the opticians. For example, the contact details of each buyer must be recorded. We call and ask if they are satisfied, if they have headaches, if the glasses fit properly."
The centre also trains the mobile optician teams who drive to the villages and schools with the glasses and lenses in order to provide the population with visual aids. "We raise the costs for the training of around 1000 euros from donations, as well as the costs for bending machines and system construction at the beginning," explains Aufmuth.
The opticians receive a small basic salary and are additionally paid according to success. "Unemployment in countries like Malawi or Burkina Faso is often over 80 percent, and a permanent job is a stroke of luck.
In the long term, the local centres are to carry themselves by selling the glasses. Aufmuth does not believe that he will then be able to finance the association in Germany from the sales proceeds: "This will finance the salaries of the local employees and buy material for spectacle production. For the establishment of the local structures - the establishment of shops, the implementation of campaigns, training and bending machines - we depend on donations and a lot of voluntary commitment. Once this has been achieved, the basic ophthalmic care should be financially independent on site."
In Burkina Faso, this goal has already been partially achieved: the employees, including those with walking disabilities, sell up to 1000 pairs of glasses a month and thus earn their living.
In the meantime, Aufmuth himself has learned a lot. If there was market day the day before, people don't come back to town the next day to get their eyes measured. Or: If a free distribution of AIDS drugs takes place parallel to his campaign in the health centre, nobody comes there to take eye measurements. Nobody wants to be suspected of having AIDS in front of their neighbours.
The sale is often preceded by a test phase. "People only have a vague idea that they see worse than others." Recently he gave 37 villagers glasses to try out for a week. They should test what changes for them in everyday life when they have glasses.
The feedback had been overwhelming: "An old man had never seen the birds on the trees before. One pupil had to write homework for another for years because the girl couldn't read any more - the girlfriend was almost happier than the girl who got the glasses." Women and men can suddenly sew again - this is important in these countries as everything is preserved and mended. And when people experience how important glasses are for them, they try to raise the money for them.
When determining the price, the social entrepreneur orients himself towards regional conditions. In the ärmsten Ländern the costs for glasses should correspond to one or two local daily wages. In a country like Malawi, for example, this is just under five euros - the equivalent of a chicken. "Nevertheless, not all subjects bought glasses - many simply don't have the money."
He is currently thinking about raising prices in the cities so that he can lower them in the countryside and thus ensure the supply of glasses in rural areas. Martin Aufmuth does not see himself as a competitor to the local opticians: "The few opticians who exist in these countries usually sit in the city and sell expensive glasses to rich people. They are not interested in supplying the poor population with cheap glasses. The established system thus completely ignores the needs of 700 million people."
Africa is a very special continent. Everything doesn't always work as planned. "In Rwanda, for example, we had to close down the site."
The legislation there stipulates that only local people can establish and manage an NGO. So Aufmuth renounced any say in the matter. "However, the management quickly became independent in a direction that did not meet our expectations. They trained more and more producers, although the distribution did not work. And they mainly sold ready-to-wear glasses, which was not our goal - we want to create jobs by not only having some producers, but also training opticians. In the end, they tried to get money where it was possible without thinking about the future. We'll never do that again. If the government imposes such constraints, it is better not to carry out a project."
Now he has India in focus. "There is an exciting atmosphere of departure." Recently, a small team from Germany researched locally with which contact persons could be cooperated. A newly recruited contact person on site will now set up the first location. He will also clarify the legal conditions under which the association may train opticians there and whether there are any subsidies from the Indian government for the training.
"In India alone, over 300 million people with ametropia today have no access to glasses. The one-dollar glasses can change the lives of these people there if we manage to build the necessary structures and train enough opticians. For the first start-up phase we expect a financial requirement of about 250000 Euro." That's a lot of money for a small organization that has just 1.6 million euros available annually for its eight project countries.
Martin Aufmuth has just completed the 13th generation of his bending machine. It is always a question of becoming even simpler, even more flexible. The latest model is marked with Braille, so that even non-sighted people can bend frames.
This year the social entrepreneur also became Ashoka Fellow. Ashoka distinguishes people who have a large and systemic effect in one area. "We have a lever of 1 in 100. Glasses give their wearers possibilities that are 100 times higher than what they have to spend on the glasses. There are very few things that have such an impact."
It's just that sometimes he's a little bit pressed for responsibility. Then he thinks of the at least 699.9 million people worldwide who do not yet have glasses. He knows some people will starve because they can't see. "That's not an exaggeration - those who already have too little to live for anyway and can no longer farm their field properly due to their poor eyesight are often threatened with starvation."
When Martin Aufmuth decided in 2015 to devote himself entirely to the project EinDollarBrille, he was granted a special right of return to the safe teaching profession by the Minister of Education, Ludwig Spaenle, until 2020. Today he knows he can't get out of this project.
"It just wasn't enough for me, with the row house and the family and the job. I didn't want to donate 50 euros for Christmas. I wanted to systematically change a problem. Once you know this works, there's no going back."
Foundation or association - how can commitment succeed better?
Author: Yvonne Döbler