The Man Who’s Bringing Eye Care to the Local Bar
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we should be better at doing good.
I first met Tom Rosewall inside the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda. Both of us were trying not to get deported. He leaned over, introduced himself and went into sales mode discomfitingly quickly. After spinning his 30-second pitch with the ease of a veteran car salesman, he tossed me his card. I bit, and we met a year later, over beers, at the swankiest hotel in Kigali.
Rosewall, 62, is a private sector maven. But two years ago he relocated — for half the year — from a beachside town in Spain to Rwanda, diving into a mission that could reach far beyond this landlocked East African nation. A longtime man of industry, Rosewall might offer a precedent for a new model of charities or nongovernmental organizations. And he’s been doing it in the fairly unsexy sector of eyecare. In the past two years, Rosewall’s outfit, Vision for a Nation, has trained nurses countrywide and provided eye screenings to an astounding 380,000 Rwandans, up from 250,000 in June, selling 56,000 pairs of glasses through the Ministry of Health — 21,000 pairs in the past six months alone.
Rosewall has other anti-NGO moves in mind, and he happens to be in a great country for it — Rwanda, like so many global south countries, is flooded with NGOs, 200 of them. Rosewall is part of a growing breed of private business leaders who are getting aggressive about making sure these outfits don’t put do-gooding ahead of actually accomplishing something. He wants to hitch this cart to the capitalist wagon and ensure that Vision for a Nation is less Karl Marx and more Adam Smith.
Unafraid to drop the casual swearword and wearing a tailored suit with slicked-back hair, Rosewall found his way to Rwanda by a mix of luck and saying fuck it. Plus some audacity. Many would say he has no business doing this type of work: Before this job, he’d never even been to East Africa. He peppers his speech with references to Porsches, marketing strategies, sales numbers and “customer experience.” After graduating from Georgetown University, he started a career with old-school Westinghouse Electric. Since then, he’s dabbled in everything from defense to furniture-making; he worked for Vison for a Nation’s billionaire founder James Chen, who tapped him for the role.
Sometimes, though, I get a sense of a guy before the money: Rosewall grew up on a farm under the care of his widowed grandmother, something he says makes him understand his rural Rwandan clients better. He thinks of his grandmother, alone for 31 years, when he sees the many women widowed by the genocide, and he claims that the Rwandan farmers remind him of his youth.
He doesn’t mince words when it comes to doing business: He runs through the numbers — an Asian supplier, manufacturing glasses for 47 cents apiece; health centers in all 15,000 villages distributing the products. To ensure the glasses get to where they’re going, Rosewall took a page from his days working with Wal-Mart suppliers: He hired a guy to sit in the Ministry of Health and watch like a hawk. “It’s gonna be a bad day in May if Mary walks three hours to the health center and there are no glasses. She’ll turn right around and tell everyone not to bother,” says Rosewall. Oh, and he also brings the eye clinics to the people. To the local bars, to be exact. That, he says, is how you get the men interested.
When Rosewall arrived in Rwanda he decided the habits of old-time nonprofits were “bullshit.” For one, he has beef with those who “sit in their nice homes, drive Range Rovers and feed on the existence of their own NGO.” His plan isn’t to keep his own organization alive. He’ll hand the reins to the government in 2017, with a built-in means of supporting itself. Vision for a Nation generates a dollar off each pair of glasses, although the poorest 20 percent of the population get theirs for free. That revenue ultimately goes back into the program. Kenyan ophthalmologist Chiku Mathenge, who works with the Rwandan Ministry, says Rosewall is a “favorite” of the Minister of Health. (The ministry couldn’t be reached for comment, but its website lists Vision for a Nation as a collaborator.)
But his down-to-business attitude rubs some the wrong way. Mathenge blames “the brashness of Americans.” Piet Noë, an ophthalmologist working for German charity CBM in Rwanda, says Rosewall’s organization doesn’t address what he and Mathenge see as Rwanda’s biggest eye challenge: Fifty-seven percent of blindness in the country is caused by cataracts. Noë says the organization is “really struggling” because “working in faraway up-country health centers is not very attractive” to nurses. Some nurses see the training as a way to qualify for a better job and move on.
Yet Rosewall clearly knows how to work a room, and seemed insistent on working me, quietly pounding his fist on the table like a subdued evangelist, selling his gospel. And you can witness his leftover corporate ambition. What they’ve done so far? “Chicken feed,” he says, with defiance. Once all this works out, though, he claims he’ll retire — but first, he’ll parachute into the next country. Hello, Bhutan?