Refugee entrepreneur sets sights on easing Afghan vision-care crisis

A student at Carleton University is working with partners and advisers around the world to bring to life a startup that aims to address one of his homeland’s “silent epidemics.”

Ever since he was in the eighth grade, Babur Jahid said, he has had an “insatiable hunger and passion for health care.” An Afghan who was born and raised in Kabul during the Taliban regime, the 20-year-old saw “a lot of people suffering,” he said.

Among Afghanistan’s biggest health-care crises is poor access to eye care. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.5 million Afghans are visually impaired, and almost 500,000 are completely blind. The issue imposes an economic burden of about $100 million per year on a country that’s ranked among the least developed in the world.

Each year, roughly 25,000 Afghans – mostly women – lose their vision in one eye. Vision impairment affects the country’s citizens in their prime working years, and it prevents many of Afghanistan’s youth from succeeding in school, Mr. Jahid said.

“They lose productivity, and they lose their livelihoods,” he said, in a recent interview. “It’s one of the silent epidemics that are really impacting our lives on a daily basis.”

Mr. Jahid spoke to OBJ from Boston, while attending a symposium on social entrepreneurship and innovation as part of the Students for Social Impact internship, organized by the British Council, a London-based charity that offers cultural and educational opportunities. The program will take him to the United Kingdom this summer to prepare for the launch of his social enterprise, You See Clear.

Established last year by Mr. Jahid and his partner, fellow Carleton student Rory Jipp, You See Clear will provide eyeglasses to Afghans for as little as $2 per pair. The firm plans to work alongside two U.S.-based social enterprises that will provide the eyewear and equipment needed to set up eye clinics in Kabul and elsewhere throughout Afghanistan.

Mr. Jahid said You See Clear will have its eyeglasses produced and distributed by VisionSpring, a company founded in 2001 that partners with organizations around the world to provide affordable eyeglasses. Meanwhile, EyeNetra develops digital and mobile refraction technology for measuring eyeglass prescriptions using a smartphone. You See Clear plans to use the system to conduct exams quickly and inexpensively.

Eye care in Afghanistan has been slowly progressing over the last decade as its Ministry of Public Health, the World Health Organization and various NGOs have established ophthalmological training centres and free eye clinics. But Mr. Jahid says there’s still lots of work to be done to increase access to vision care across the country.

You See Clear plans to work with regional governments to establish small clinics in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, beginning in Kabul.

“I know the demand there is so large that, upon our entrance to Kabul, they’ll immediately hear about us,” Mr. Jahid says.

His time in Britain this summer will include a pilot project in which clients will test out the type of clinic that You See Clear would operate in Afghanistan. After that, he aims to officially launch in April 2017. Until then, the firm will be hard at work seeking grants and other funding channels in order to raise the $40,000 it will take to launch.

Mr. Jahid, who came to Canada as a refugee via the United States in 2013, has a history of philanthropy. Before leaving Afghanistan, he played in one of the country’s very few rock bands – in secret, since the music isn’t widely accepted in the local culture, he says – and played charity concerts to raise money for women’s and girls’ education.

“One of the fortunate things about Afghanistan is that a lot of youth want to get involved with causes like this; they want to help really badly, but they don’t know how,” Mr. Jahid says. “One of my biggest philosophies that I’m trying to enter into the community in Afghanistan is the idea of volunteerism and paying it forward.”

According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide, and about 90 per cent of them live in low-income settings. The WHO also says that 80 per cent of blindness globally could have been avoided with access to proper eye-care facilities.

If You See Clear takes hold in Afghanistan, Mr. Jahid says, he would like to eventually expand into other countries in Africa and Asia and will also look into working in indigenous communities in Canada.