2 January 2014

Rwanda: Specs Appeal - German Physics Teacher Brings Affordable Glasses to Rwanda

It took Martin Aufmuth three years to bring to fruition his idea to produce a device that makes cheap glasses.

Aufmuth, who won top prize at the Siemens Stiftung award in October, said his OneDollarGlasses project was inspired by the book Out of Poverty by Paul Polak, which he read in 2009.

Aufmuth, who teaches maths and physics in Erlangen, Germany, is a big fan of Polak's idea of developing practical solutions that harness the power of markets to reduce poverty. "It showed me the importance of innovations that sell for about $1 [60p]," he says.

Costing only $1 to make, the glasses will be sold for between $2 to $7, so OneDollarGlasses opticians can earn their living from them.

The spectacles are made by hand on a specially designed bending and milling machine, which requires no electrical power. Virtually maintenance-free, it is designed to work in the most remote villages. All the equipment fits into a wooden box with outer dimensions of 30cm x 30cm x 30cm.

The lightweight and flexible frames are made from rustproof, hypoallergenic 1mm-spring-steel wire,and the polished, unbreakable lenses are made of polycarbonate with a hardened surface.

The OneDollarGlasses optician has a box with 25 lenses (made in China) varying in strength from -6.0 to +6.0 diopters in steps of 0.5 diopters (a diopter is a unit of measurement of the optical power of a lens).

Polycarbonate is much more resistant than glass or resin, which are commonly used in glasses. The lenses, which have notches, can be simply clicked into the frame by hand. Because the glasses - individually adjustable and almost unbreakable - are lightweight, they do not require traditional nose bridges.

Technicians can be trained in just 14 days, although it can take two sessions to perfect their skills. Eye testing is done with a simple chart that can be attached to a wall or a tree.

Three to four people can operate one manufacturing unit to produce 5,000-10,000 pairs of glasses a year, Aufmuth says. After a pilot project in Uganda, Aufmuth and his teams have been training people in Rwanda since April.

The device, including the bending machine, optical equipment and material for the first 500 pairs of glasses, costs €2,400 (£2010). Aufmuth realises the startup costs are unaffordable in target countries, so they are covered completely by donations.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 150 million people suffer from defective eyesight that could be rectified with a pair of glasses.

"Extreme poverty does not only mean hunger, but also illness, hopelessness, missed opportunities in life," Aufmuth says on his website.

"Many of them cannot go to school for that reason, cannot work and can - as a consequence - not provide for themselves and their families. This is what I want to change."


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