How innovation can eradicate a global health crisis: The case of Rwanda - CNBC Africa

How innovation can eradicate a global health crisis: The case of Rwanda

East Africa

by James Chen 0

Photo: Wikimedia

James Chen is a member of YPO, a philanthropist and entrepreneur and the founder of Clearly

Eight years ago I founded Vision for a Nation in Rwanda, at which time there was one ophthalmologist for every million people in Rwanda and no locally available eye care support. Fast forward and today, local and affordable eye care is available to 100 per cent of the nation’s 10.5 million people.

My experience with the Vision for a Nation model demonstrates what can be done when specialists, governments and innovators come together to collaborate on one vital issue.

I’m certain that in a world that is capable of eradicating the most vicious diseases, inventing the driverless car, and launching a mission to Mars, there are advances and potential solutions to this problem that we haven’t yet imagined. 

Poor vision as a global health crisis

The problem of poor vision is not restricted to Africa. There are an estimated 2.5 billion people across the world who have poor vision and no means of correcting it. This is roughly equal to the population of China, India and Japan combined. And yet, it is estimated that for around 80 per cent of those 2.5 billion people a simple pair of glasses would effectively restore their vision. Specifically, in Africa, poor vision is a frequent cause of road traffic accidents. In five years, the World Health Organisation predicts that road accidents will be the biggest cause of death across the continent, outstripping malaria or HIV.

Besides the impact on personal growth and development, current rates of poor vision are estimated to cost the global economy about $3 trillion a year according to a recent report by Access Economics. That’s more than the entire GDP of the African continent. The challenge we face today, particularly in the developing world where this problem is most endemic, is how we can deliver primary eye care and affordable solutions.

The Rwanda experience

As a businessman and venture philanthropist, I launched a global campaign – Clearly –applying business skills towards my mission of helping the whole world see by 2035.

The journey started in Rwanda with Vision for a Nation Foundation, which was recently awarded the top prize in the 'International Aid and Development' category by the UK’s Charity Awards/Civil Society organisation, the sector’s most prestigious and longest-running awards.

Vision for a Nation has helped build a nationwide eye care service that is fully integrated into Rwanda’s national healthcare system, and is now going “the extra mile” to deliver the service to 100% of the nation’s 15,000 villages. No other low-income country has achieved this critical health goal; and yet, the challenge now is to replicate this success on a global scale so that we can improve access to vision correction for the people who need it most.

Key success factors

The Rwanda experience demonstrated the power of collaboration.Connecting people with big ideas, with the people who can make the ideas happen, in the belief that commercial enterprises with social purpose can be the key to a better future for all. A key success factor has been the determination of Rwanda’s Ministry of Health to develop a holistic national eye care plan. The eye care service that we have helped establish is now a permanent and fully integrated part of Rwanda’s health system. By December 2017, around 1.6 million Rwandans will have received a screening, with 350,000 receiving glasses and 325,000 referred for specialist treatment.

Vision for a Nation’s Rwanda programme represents a model for how to successfully deliver eye care services nationwide for entire populations in low-and-middle-income countries. Indeed, the World Health Organization is also adopting the Rwanda training course for Africa.

Keeping up with technical innovations will be key. In a time of such rapid advances in digital and healthcare technologies, the potential for innovation in this space is enormous. For example, the sudden influx of drone technology is already permitting healthcare workers and NGOs to overcome the immense challenges of poor infrastructure in Rwanda, allowing vital medicines and equipment to arrive safely when and where they are most needed. 

More specifically, in Kenya, the start-up ‘Peek Technology’ has developed an application that allows teachers to screen the vision of students with only a smart phone. In time, their technology will evolve to taking high-resolution photographs of the eye that will be accurate enough to detect a range of conditions, from cataracts to macular degeneration and diabetes. 

These are just two examples of the kinds of innovations that could well prove to be genuinely transformational for eye care across the globe. Poor vision is often an imperceptible problem, one that is rarely afforded the same attention as other global health crises. However, it is one richly deserving of our creativity, investment and innovation. With sustained effort global access to vision correction is achievable by 2035.


YPO is the premier chief executive leadership organization in the world, representing a global community of leaders committed to the shared mission of becoming "Better Leaders Through Lifelong Learning and Idea Exchange." YPO today provides more than 24,000 members in more than 130 countries with access to extraordinary educational resources, alliances with leading institutions, and specialized networks designed to support their business, community and personal leadership. Altogether, YPO member-run companies employ more than 15 million people around the world and generate USD6 trillion in annual revenues. For more information, visit