An eye for op­por­tu­ni­ties

Cash­ing in where oth­ers fear to tread

Finweek English Edition - - Business Strategy -

IT’S NOT HARD TO SEE why Steve Ma­hopo took top hon­ours in the re­cent First Na­tional Bank-spon­sored emerg­ing en­trepreneurs com­pe­ti­tion. Not only is he dar­ing, he also acts on his de­sires. His de­ci­sion to in­vest his for­tune in a busi­ness pro­vid­ing op­tom­e­try ser­vices and prod­ucts to a ne­glected yet risky low-end mar­ket is just one case in point.

De­spite the fact that op­tometrists aren’t men­tioned in the same breath as doc­tors, nurses and den­tists when talk­ing of the skills crunch plagu­ing SA, Ma­hopo none­the­less saw early on the im­pact of the grow­ing num­ber of op­tometrists join­ing the flood of skilled med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers mi­grat­ing over­seas in search of greener pas­tures.

The scale of the short­age of op­tometrists in SA is ap­par­ent from a ra­tio (es­pe­cially in ru­ral SA) that now stands at 30 pa­tients to one op­tometrist per day. Re­al­is­ing the dire need for this ser­vice in ru­ral ar­eas, 38-yearold Ma­hopo says he launched Day­light Vi­sion Op­tometrists – a mo­bile eye clinic based in the Free State – two years ago.

“The chal­lenge and op­por­tu­nity in my case is that most op­tometrists who have re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to go over­seas have fo­cused on serv­ing mainly the high-end mar­ket,” he says. In­deed, that mar­ket is as­sumed to have med­i­cal cover, which makes pay­ment for such ser­vices easy. That’s cre­ated a glar­ing gap at the lower end. A re­cent sur­vey spon­sored by the health lobby group Tran­si­tions Health Sight for Life Fund showed al­most a third of South Africans (mostly in ru­ral ar­eas) never visit an op­tometrist. Yet nearly 50% said they ex­pe­ri­enced eye prob­lems.

“It’s not as though peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas don’t want their sight prob­lems treated – it’s a ques­tion of both ac­cess and af­ford­abil­ity,” says Ma­hopo. “Un­like your av­er­age ur­ban­ite, th­ese peo­ple don’t have for­mal jobs, mak­ing it al­most im­pos­si­ble for them to have med­i­cal cover.”

The need for a ser­vice was cer­tainly there. But see­ing the op­por­tu­nity was not a lin­ear route from school to the pound seats. How did a uni­ver­sity grad­u­ate who hardly ever dreamt of break­ing into a ca­reer in op­tom­e­try (let alone en­trepreneur­ship) prior to com­plet­ing his ma­tric land up run­ning an op­tom­e­try busi­ness?

Soon af­ter leav­ing school Ma­hopo briefly worked in the pub­lic re­la­tions in­dus­try but was quick to dump his job when he re­alised there were far more promis­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in the med­i­cal in­dus­try. His ex­po­sure to the health in­dus­try – a re­sult of a stint with a Soweto-based op­tometrist – gen­er­ated an in­ter­est in the field.

“I briefly toyed with the idea Bloem­fontein in 2006, where he set up his own prac­tice aimed mainly at the ru­ral poor. There were chal­lenges, chiefly the low re­turn on in­vest­ment in that mar­ket seg­ment and a high risk of de­faults on pay­ments. But notwith­stand­ing the ob­vi­ous fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties that go hand in glove with the level of risk, Ma­hopo took the plunge, re­ly­ing on high pa­tient vol­umes to sus­tain his rev­enue mo­men­tum.

“Both lenses and frames are sold to me at dis­counted prices be­cause I buy in bulk. But the huge num­ber of pa­tients I at­tend of study­ing ra­di­og­ra­phy but in­stead en­rolled at Rand Afrikaans Uni­ver­sity in 1999 (Uni­ver­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg) to study op­tom­e­try,” he says. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing Ma­hopo worked as an un­der­study to qual­i­fied op­tometrists in Soweto be­cause, as he says: “You’ve got to live in the town­ship and ex­pe­ri­ence its life­style to un­der­stand the var­i­ous chal­lenges, in­clud­ing ac­cess to af­ford­able and qual­ity health­care.”

Then Ma­hopo re­lo­cated to to in a day eas­ily make up for the money I could have been mak­ing ser­vic­ing the high-end mar­ket,” he says.

He con­cedes: “An­other chal­lenge fac­ing pa­tients in ru­ral ar­eas is that of trans­port.” His strat­egy to get round that hur­dle was sim­ple. “I take my ser­vices right to the pa­tient’s doorstep,” he says.

The strat­egy is pay­ing off hand­somely. Since in­cep­tion his busi­ness has recorded annu- al dou­ble-digit growth fig­ures. “Al­though I’m based in the Free State the sheer num­ber of peo­ple I at­tend to in a year gives me about 30% mar­ket share of the mo­bile eye care in­dus­try na­tion­ally,” he says.

Buoyed by the suc­cess of his Free State busi­ness, he now plans to launch two more clin­ics in Garankuwa and Soshanguve, north of Pre­to­ria. In fact, Ma­hopo’s long-term vi­sion is to es­tab­lish and run a coun­try­wide net­work of mo­bile eye care clin­ics.

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