May 16, 2024

Maisha Meds Focuses Its Sights on Vision with a Pilot Initiative in Kenya

By Wintana Belai

Kisumu, Kenya — A fifty-year-old named Rosemary was beaming after walking away with a pair of affordable glasses after a vision screening in Kisumu’s Kibuye Market.

“Going for tests are sometimes expensive including purchasing of reading glasses,” she told the Star, a Kenyan newspaper.

She got her vision tested and corrected through a new program by Maisha Meds, whose software is used by over 3,300 private pharmacies and clinics across Africa.

Maisha Meds’ programs already reimburse care for malaria, contraceptives, and HIV prevention. Now, we’re bringing our startup spirit to vision care with the same goals: improving quality of life, building on what’s worked before, trying something new, and learning along the way.

People don’t always recognize they need glasses, especially in an aging population. And the impact goes far beyond reading — including their ability to do certain kinds of work and participate more fully in the world around them. For example, a recent randomized controlled trial in Bangladesh found that median incomes grew 33.4% over eight months for participants who received near-vision glasses.

Traditionally, people in East Africa tend to get glasses in very different ways: Some turn to optical shops, where prices may pose a barrier. They also tend to be located in urban areas and aren’t connected to other services. Others buy from street vendors, who may not have the training to ensure their customers get the right lenses. 

Pharmacies and clinics, on the other hand, are places people already turn to for basic health needs — and this is where Maisha Meds has ample experience. Maisha Meds operates in Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, where we have teams on the ground guiding and educating providers on how to use our software. 

A new program, known as “Tazama” (“to look” in Swahili), was born when Maisha Meds decided to partner with Vision Spring, a social enterprise dedicated to making eyewear affordable. In a pilot funded by Livelihood Impact Fund, people like Rosemary would get a free vision test and near-vision glasses at a discount.

We started developing the program in March 2023, which included updating our software and testing different price points. We officially launched in August 2023 in two cities in Kenya, Kisumu and Mombasa.

Getting the word out was no easy task. “Tazama” was Maisha Meds’ first consumer brand, and we worked with a research and marketing agency called Nendo that knew exactly how to develop a brand quickly, effectively, and locally. We put up billboards, created radio ads, printed t-shirts, and developed patient cards. We launched community outreaches in local churches, open-air markets, transit terminals, and within the participating pharmacies and clinics themselves.

Our tagline: “Macho Bora, Maisha Bora.” Better eyes, better life.

Very quickly, these efforts paid off. One community event focused on traders in Kisumu’s Kibuye Market was featured in the Star, Kala TV, and Daily Nation, one of the largest newspapers in Kenya. Another event in nearby Jubilee Market was also featured in the Star.

After running our radio ads in Mombasa, Radio Kaya started receiving calls from listeners who were curious about the program. They even invited our local team to the studio to discuss the program and answer listener questions. 

“The radio interview exercise was an eye-opener to both the listeners and the Maisha Meds team,” said Collins Omondi, a customer experience associate for Maisha Meds in Mombasa. In addition to educating listeners about the program, he underscored how useful it was to have a central way to respond to listeners’ questions “right on the spot.”

Maisha Meds senior associate Merceline Ojenge (left) and Grace Jobita, treasurer for the NGO Maendeleo ya Wanawake, speak with Haron Otieno of Kisumu-based radio station Namlolwe FM.

The response from the community has been enthusiastic. We’ve conducted over 7,000 screenings and distributed 5,600 pairs of eyeglasses to date. With such fast-growing appeal, we’re finding ways to tackle new challenges that come with the program’s success. 

Malaria tests may be one-size-fits-all, but eyeglasses aren’t. Tazama’s popularity means that a pharmacy may need to restock a particular strength. To tackle this, we’re experimenting with patient cards, which will allow people to pick up their glasses later or at a different participating pharmacy or clinic. This will help ensure we meet demand efficiently.

And we anticipate demand will continue to grow — not only because we’re getting the word out on billboards and radio stations, but because word of mouth is a powerful tool. As long as people like Kisumu resident Rosemary have a story to tell, others will be listening.

“Today I’m happy that I can finally read my Bible before going to sleep,” she told the Star.