His aim is clear – for everyone in the world to have access to eye screening by 2035 – and James Chen’s work shows how a collaborative approach can make the difference.
By Susan Lilies
Hong Kong businessman and venture philanthropist James Chen says poor eyesight is the issue the world forgot.
“It’s the world’s largest unaddressed disability,” he says.
Seven hundred years after spectacles were invented, there are still 4.2 billion people worldwide who suffer from poor eyesight; 80 per cent of them live in developing countries with no access to vision correction, according to research last year by the World Economic Forum, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the EYElliance.
The research estimates that an inability to see properly equates to US$227 billion in lost productivity each year.
PwC says that every dollar invested in solving the problem delivers a US$4 return because the ability to see clearly transforms lives by improving literacy and education, reducing poverty levels and inequality and, ultimately, benefiting the global economy.
The World Economic Forum found that in 2015 just US$37 million was spent addressing the challenge of solving the world’s vision problems.
Genesis of an idea
Over the past 13 years, Chen has used his networks, his business acumen and his wealth to establish several entities – some are commercial, others are not-for-profits – to tackle the issue of poor eyesight from various angles.
Chen first noticed some of the unexpected impacts of poor vision in the early 2000s when he was running a school library program to help with early childhood literacy in China. He saw that some parents could not see well enough to read to their children.
It was an observation that stayed with him and resonated in 2004 when he was introduced to Oxford University professor Joshua Silver, the inventor of a new technology for glasses with adjustable lenses. That’s when Chen’s “vision journey” truly began.
Silver had found a way to change the curvature of lenses in spectacles by filling them with liquid and allowing the wearer to use a dial to vary their power. Chen recalls that the early prototypes needed work, but he could see their potential.
It was also an opportunity for Chen to affirm his belief that businesspeople should apply their skills to social problems, particularly their capability to take smart risks.
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He and Silver decided to team up and manufacture the adjustable lenses. Chen pondered how he would structure the manufacturer – would it be a social venture or commercial enterprise with a social purpose? He opted for the latter because “in my experience, social ventures don’t scale well,” he says.
“The business needs to be sustainable. When you are trying to make the best adjustable glasses, you need the bandwidth of the management team and the researchers ‘laser-focused’ on making a product that will meet consumers’ demanding needs. To distract them with a social mission is too much.”
The company, named Adlens, naturally took some refining, but now employs 70 people around the world. It markets its adjustable lens glasses in advanced economies as a temporary measure for when prescription glasses are not available and for diabetics whose vision changes as their blood sugar levels fluctuate.
“Once you have sustainability or profitability, then you have resources – people with a lot of skills and knowledge that can be put towards the social problem,” says Chen.
He says his venture philanthropy and domain-specific approach is partly inspired by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's focus on malaria. The Gates invest in technology and entrepreneurial organisations, supporting initiatives that may not happen with conventional development finance, and they expect clear results in return.
The next step
Chen now had the lenses to help people once their vision problem had been diagnosed, but how could he solve the problem of giving people access to vision screening? Chen knew the developing world was home to the vast majority of people with uncorrected vision problems. What could he and a team of experts do if they truly committed time and resources on the ground?
That’s when his ambitious project for Rwanda was born. His goal was to make local vision screening tests accessible to all of the African nation’s 12 million citizens.
In 2009, he sent a team to Rwanda with instructions that he’d work with anyone except the government. “We chose Rwanda because it’s a small enough country so we could test on a national scale and have results within a reasonable time frame,” he says.
However, after talks with multinationals, missionaries and non-government organisations (NGOs), the team reported back that, despite Chen’s reluctance, the Rwandan health ministry seemed the best bet. He took a risk.
“I thought even if we fail, we’ll find out what we don’t know.” Yet during the ensuing process he became the number one fan of the then health minister, Agnes Binagwaho, because “she just got it”.
"A world where everybody could see would be a better, fairer, more productive world."
In 2011, Chen’ established British NGO Vision for a Nation to start work on the Rwanda project. It developed a three-day screening program and built a team of trainers who skilled up 2500 Ministry of Health nurses to do the screening.
The process, developed by Kenyan ophthalmologist Dr Ciku Mathenge, involves no technology. The Health Ministry’s distribution arm dispatched Adlens glasses to clinics throughout Rwanda for sale to patients.
Binagwaho declared the effort a model of public-private partnership.
“In Rwanda we’ve shown universal access is do-able and a three-day nurse program is good enough for primary eye care,” concludes Chen.
“Everyone in Rwanda now has access to a nurse who is trained in eyecare screening.”
Those who need them can buy a pair of Adlens adjustable lens glasses for US$1.50 (about an average day’s wage in Rwanda). Why charge for the spectacles? “Because it gives them a value,” Chen says.
The program has been so successful that Vision for a Nation will exit Rwanda at the end of this year, passing its protocols to the World Health Organization (WHO) which will roll them out elsewhere.
The Clearly initiative
Chen was heartened by the success of the program but knew that moving one country at a time would make for very slow progress. It didn’t fit with his goal of achieving global access to vision correction by 2035. (That’s the year NASA hopes to put a person on Mars – Chen wants the whole world to be able to witness that event.)
In April 2016, he launched a campaign called Clearly to bring together innovators, scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs and big business with investors, governments and NGOs, among others, to rethink the whole vision issue.
Significantly, Clearly is not focused on fundraising but on raising awareness and developing ideas to answer the campaign’s core question: “How can the whole world see?”
“A world where everybody could see would be a better, fairer, more productive world. We invite anybody with new ideas and a desire for change to join us,” reads a statement on the campaign’s website.
“The problem is growing faster than the solutions can be offered,” says Chen.
In its first year, the Clearly campaign has flushed out promising ventures and talent with the Clearly Vision Prize. Chen put up US$200,000 in prize money; US$100,000 of this went to the winner, South African business Vula Mobile, which developed an app that gives remote health workers tools to capture accurate clinical information and connects them to specialists for advice. Inventions from India, the US and Ghana shared the remaining US$100,000 prize money.
Six Clearly labs also brought together innovative thinkers – business leaders, optometrists, health experts and activists – in Hong Kong, New York, San Francisco, Ottawa, Nairobi and Bangalore.
“We’ve been gathering intelligence, insights and building networks,” says Chen, whose investment in Clearly is reported to run to seven figures.
The organisation’s next moves are being determined in the wake of Clearly 2035, a gathering of 25 global vision leaders in Murano, near Venice, in April 2017. The location of Murano was symbolic. “A hotbed of innovation in the late 13th century, that’s where clear glass was invented, which led to the development of eye glasses,” Chen explains.
He predicts “innovations around devices and apps” will be the game-changer; smartphones and access to digital technology have transformed so many things since Chen started his vision mission 13 years ago.
None of these initiatives can continue, however, without ongoing investment from goal-focused philanthropists like Chen.
Charity vs philanthropy
Charity is a very passive way of giving, laments Chen. “It’s wonderful that people are generous with their money but they don’t spend the time getting to the root of problems or coming up with solutions to them. You actually need to really understand an issue, so you can figure out how to organise around it, making investments, ideally with others who are working in the field.”
Chen says philanthropists can operate more strategically and, ultimately, be more effective if they become domain specialists. They need to zoom in on social problems, gather knowledge and commit to staying in for the long haul. They should not only invest money but also other resources – expertise, business insights and access to their networks of associates. Collective knowledge is valuable.
Proactive donors can “cut through the bull****”, according to Chen. “There may be NGOs or not-for-profits with good marketing pitches, but do they really have what it takes to move the needle?” he asks.
“Engaged philanthropists, donors and investors provide information where there is a lack of information. Others who can’t spend the time, effort or money to pursue an issue for a long time [like correcting poor vision across the world], can look at the things I’m backing, and maybe choose to follow, or ask why I’m not backing someone.
“For business, that function is carried out by the stockmarket, which allocates capital to winning ideas and starves the bad ones; but in the social arena where there isn’t an easy black-and-white, profit-and-loss metric, you need engaged philanthropists to help channel information and resources to the right kind of initiatives to have impact.”
While he’s not seeking accolades, his efforts to transform billions of lives are globally recognised. Last October, when he addressed the One Young World conference in Ottawa, Chen was on stage with major reformers of the past half-century, including former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus and anti-poverty activist Sir Bob Geldof.
Chen’s success with his Vision for a Nation in Rwanda has been extremely satisfying. “We’re on the cusp of solving a problem that’s bedevilled the world for 700 years, and I’m right in the middle of it. How exciting is that!”
A snapshot of James Chen’s ventures
- The Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation is a Hong Kong-based charitable foundation established in 2003 that focuses on early childhood literacy, library development and education enhancement in China, Hong Kong and Ghana.
- Adlens is a commercial company set up in 2005 that employs 70 people globally and manufactures adjustable lenses.
- Vision for a Nation is a UK-registered non-government organisation (NGO) established in 2011 that provides local vision screening to the whole population of Rwanda.
- Clearly is a US-registered not-for-profit that operates as a thought hub. Set up in 2016, its aim is to nurture ideas and solutions that will help everyone in the world to see by 2035. Anyone with expertise can join its initiative.
- Legacy Advisors is a group Chen established to manage his family’s investments and serves as a model for other wealthy families in China.
Who’s your favourite business thinker and why?
“Jed Emerson created the concept of blended value investing. He says people like myself, who run a family office, are in the position not to just invest for financial returns but also for social and environmental returns, hence the idea of blended value.
"That way you can create a lot more impact in the long term, because part of the process involves channelling more than financial resources by also giving access to networks of others who can help with the problems.”
Influencing the next generation
Chen hopes his philanthropic experiences will influence a new generation of wealthy businesspeople in China. Ethnically Chinese, Chen is a global citizen. His family moved from Hong Kong to Nigeria when he was three and they later moved to upstate New York. After boarding school in the UK, Chen went to the University of Chicago.
Through Legacy Advisors, a vehicle he established to manage his family’s investments, he has helped pioneer the family office concept to manage the wealth of families in China. He also runs the charitable Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation which promotes early childhood literacy in China, Hong Kong and Ghana.
Wealthy Chinese families tend to be very charitable but not necessarily philanthropic, and are reluctant to publicise their commitments, says Chen.
“Chinese society is still strongly influenced by Confucian philosophy that dictates wealthy merchants are supposed to be charitable, but it’s not their place to deal with social change.”
China, however, is undergoing massive social and economic change. New problems are emerging, such as the children who are left behind when their parents move to another city for higher-paid work.
“I’m hoping to start the dialogue to recognise what’s happening in the Chinese context. We need talented businesspeople to use their skills, networks and wealth to solve social problems,” he says.
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