Ethiopian Business Review

Eye for an Eye: The Growing Optical Business

For the past two decades, different data show that the demand for spectacles [eye glasses worn for eye sight deficiency] is growing significantly. As a result, the companies engaged in the business are benefiting from it.

Business opportunities driven by providing remedies to sight problems is what one witnesses while visiting a series of optic shops along the street opposite to Saint Marry Church in Arada District around Atse Naod School.

Saint Mary Optics is one of the importers of eyeglasses which have been in the business for the last 15 years. The company has been importing about 1,500 lenses every year.

“Business is good,” says Genet Hailu, general manager of the company.

In order to produce the product locally, the company has imported a machine that helps upload power on the lenses worth ETB 1.5 million. In addition to the shop it already has, it plans to open another one in the coming year, according to Genet. “Our sells are increasing every year. We also plan to supply the products to different shops,” she says.

Once very rare, confined to older people, eyeglasses are now being worn by many becoming businesses for small optic retailing shops to manufacturing and assembly facilities. It is like more people have started to use them as they can afford to buy their healthy sights back.

Signum (a Latin for- sign of life) Vitae cooperative was established in December, 1989 as an NGO called Signum Vitae Rehabilitation Project for the Disabled by Swiss and German voluntaries. The NGO started by training disabled persons in different fields like wood work, eye-glass frame work, lens grinding, optical work and handicraft work including eye-care service through a clinic for the public.

Having been fully handed over to a cooperative formed by 38 disabled people who were part of the project in 2004, Signum Vitae currently employs 89 workers, 61Pct of whom are disabled. Currently, the Cooperative is fully engaged in manufacturing lenses, their frames and providing clinical services for eye patients. Two ophthalmologists and three nurses work in the clinic.

Running on a total capital of more than ETB three million, the Cooperative manufactures up to 50 full set spectacles every day, according to Harun Yibrie, deputy manager of the Cooperative. Importing raw glasses from Germany and Switzerland, the Cooperative sells the lenses for ETB80 to ETB1200. The Cooperative also avails frames for ETB70 to ETB800.

More than 90 people visit the cooperative’s compound in Yeka District looking for its clinical services. “More and more people are looking for our services every year,” says Harun. He attributes the increasing demand in the optics business to people’s increasing household income and the growing awareness about health.

Abenezer Chala is a 19 years old freshman student of Medicine at Saint Paul Hospital Millennium Medical College. Having been diagnosed for a short sight, Abenezer has worn eyeglasses ever since she was a seventh grader. She remembers her time as a student without the glasses as one of her difficult times. She was not able to see clearly what was written on the blackboard. Neither could she study effectively. Back then, the glasses were bought for a little more than ETB 1,000 from Sun Optics, one of the manufacturers of eyeglasses in Ethiopia.

Aleph Bet Optics is one of these shops in the capital, which has been in the business for five years. The shop avails lenses and their frames. Metal frames are sold for an average ETB200 while the half plastic frame is sold for an average of ETB425. The full plastic frames, which are the modern and most common ones in the City, cost an average of ETB750, according to Beza Kinfe, administrator of the shop, who declined to disclose the shop’s volume of sell.

Aleph Bet also sells lenses, glass and plastic made. Sun sensor and antiglare lenses cost an average of ETB350 and ETB150 respectively. “The number of optic shops in the City is growing in recent years, which has caused a stiff competition,” says Beza.

Retailing shops are not the only businesses that are growing in number. There are about six eyeglass manufacturers in the Country, according to data from Ethiopian Investment Agency.

One of these manufacturers, which is engaged in the business of medical services, manufacturing and selling eyeglasses is Wagga Specialized Eye Clinic. The Clinic provides diagnosis, houses eyeglasses shops and has currently imported the raw materials to manufacture the glasses within the country.

Every month, about 700 people visit the Clinic looking for its medical services and about 90 of them go to the shops to purchase eyeglasses according to Kaleab Tadesse, finance head of the Clinic. The clinic envisions to be an institution where researches and education will undertaken in the area,

According to a research by Ministry of health there are about 120 active ophthalmologists (eye specialists) and 40 secondary eye care centers in the country as of the end of 2012. Secondary eye care centers are eye care service providers with at least one ophthalmologist and nurses with related qualification and equipments. To date there are about 35 private clinics and hospitals that specialized on eye health care, according to the data from Ethiopian investment Agency.

People could wear glasses to correct vision problems that are caused due to different reasons. One of the most common causes includes Myopia or short sightedness, which is inability to see clearly from a distance. On the other hand, hyperopia or farsightedness is a shortfall to see near objects clearly. Presbyopia a type of farsightedness is caused due to aging; the problem commonly appears on people above the age of 40 years. These people with presbyopia have inability to see clearly nearby objects due inability of the eyes to make the necessary adjustment to focus on near objects.

Given the wide spread prevalence of sight problem in the Ethiopian population, the use of eyeglasses is set to increase as the purchasing power of the public increases. About 1.6Pct of the total population were blind due to different causes, according a 2006 national survey by Ministry of Health. Among these, 7.8Pct were blind due to refractive error problems, poor sight that could be corrected using eyeglasses. People with low vision were 3.7Pct. Among these, 33.4Pct had vision impairment that could be corrected using eyeglasses.

Optical business is expected to increase as eye sight problem does not seem to ease anytime soon, according to experts in the area.

“My personal opinion is that for some foreseeable future the problems will increase because of population growth and improved longevity of the population and insufficient eye health care services,” says Gabremaskal Habtemariam, PhD, technical advisor on Eye Health at Ministry of Health.

This is an assurance that businesses engaged in eyeglass manufacturing, importing and selling are betting on, as they are investing and growing rapidly.

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