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Feature: Nepal's entrepreneurs healing blindness among poor

by Bibbi Abruzzini

KATHMANDU, Sept. 9 (Xinhua) -- Many villagers are not aware of how easily cataract can be treated or cured," said Suraj Shrestha, CEO at Anthropose, a Nepal-basedenterprise.

"The thing that appalls me the most is how people superstitiously believe that cataract is a curse from God. This needs to change," the entrepreneur told Xinhua on Sunday.

Using a market-based approach, entrepreneurs in the Himalayan nation are identifying social problems and creating sustainable and scaleable entrepreneurial solutions to them.

A group of "changemakers" has recently introduced a line of sunglasses to solve the deep-rooted problem of cataract in Nepal, and give the often ignored an opportunity to get their sight restored.

"After the surgery, my life could be easier, but this has never been a priority for my family," Manoj Giri, told Xinhua in Bahrabise, close to the Chinese border, 79 km north of Kathmandu.

The man in his sixties is one of the 200,000 visually impaired Nepalese who do not afford cataract surgery.

According to the latest National Population and Housing Census, there are 94,765 blind people in Nepal, of which, cataracts account as the cause for 62.2 percent of them.

The irony of people not being able to afford life-changing cataract surgeries despite world-class services being available in the country is why the group of young entrepreneurs behind Anthropose embarked on a business venture to improve the status quo.

"Having the best ophthalmic practices and yet very weak eye- healthcare is an oxymoron," Suraj Shrestha said.

As summed up by author Thomas L. Friedman, entrepreneurs in Nepal are now combining "a business school brain with a social worker's heart."

Anthropose calls itself a "for-profit social-good company," two characteristics that are often viewed as contrasting.

"The terms profit and social enterprise shouldn't be viewed as two opposing ideas but as two entities that mutually supplement one another," Suraj Shrestha told Xinhua.

During a field trip to the country's rural areas, the minds behind Anthropose assessed the extent to which lack of awareness, superstition and absence of basic infrastructures affected cataract patients in Nepal.

For every 10 pairs of sunglasses sold, they collect enough funds to sponsor a cataract surgery. With the motto "Get.Give. Change", almost a quarter of the profit is donated to bring eyesight back to anyone who needs it, regardless of his or her ability to pay.

In Nepal, the cost of providing cataract surgeries in rural areas ranges anywhere between 70 U.S. dollars and 120 U.S. dollars, which is often too costly for low-income households.

To work effectively, Anthropose focused on creating real economic as well as social value.

"In the context of Nepal, social entrepreneurship makes much more sense because of the huge disparity between the rich and the poor. We are showing young people who want to leave the country, that making profits and benefiting society is possible, even in Nepal," Suraj Shrestha explained.

The company's allied force is a team of dedicated doctors who are making remarkable progress in treating one of the world's highest rates of occurrence of cataract.

The Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology, led by acclaimed eye surgeon Dr. Sanduk Ruit, known in Nepal as the "God of Sight", is helping the social enterprise to identify the regions that are in most need of outreach medical eye camps.

Ruit gained fame for pioneering modern microscopic cataract surgery, including the utilization of inexpensive intraocular lenses, which have enabled hundreds of thousands of poor cataract patients of Nepal and other countries to regain their sight.

"In January 2015, we plan to finance 50 to 70 cataract surgeries with the funds collected through the sales of our sunglasses," Suraj Shrestha said.

Anthropose has dared to break down the traditional boundaries between the non-profit and for-profit world that are still rooted in Nepal.

The company proved that it is possible to combine a profitable business and at the same catalyze positive changes.

"Sunglasses are a product that resonates with the cause we tied up with. This initiate a conversation amongst the buyers and their social circle, which has a stronger impact than simply lecturing people about the problem of cataract," Suraj Shrestha opinionated.

The sunglasses are produced in China and the company is planning to expand its services abroad in the near future.

According to Suraj Shrestha and his team of nine, charity is a good thing, but no one is likely to solve Nepal's chronic problems with donations only. They believe that today there is a growing expectation and need for businesses to step up to a bigger role in society. Enditem

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