An eye for opportunities
Cashing in where others fear to tread
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.