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Our history

Vision Action – A brief history of two organisations

In 2022, Vision Action was formed through the merging of two organisations with rich histories in the eye health sector – Vision Aid Overseas and Vision for a Nation Foundation. This merger represented five decades of collective experience and together created Vision Action with the mission “to reduce vision impairment through achieving universal access to affordable eyecare and glasses”. You can read more about our 2030 strategy here.

Vision Aid Overseas (VAO) was founded in 1985, with the mission to enable people living in poverty to access affordable eye care. The organisation began when a group of optometrists and dispensing opticians, led by Brian Ellis MBE, realised how many people were prevented from learning or earning simply due to a lack of access to affordable eye tests and glasses and understood that 90% of these issues were preventable or curable.

Since then, they have provided eye care and glasses to millions of people in communities where vision solutions simply didn’t exist. They have supported quality, impactful and innovative programmes in low- and middle-income countries, to strengthen eye health systems to increase equitable access to quality eye health care and glasses. They have done this by supporting national governments to deliver their national eye health strategies, working in collaboration with civil society organisations, International and National NGOs and the private sector. 

In 2003 VAO set up the first Vision Centre in Ethiopia, the focus was on increasing and building the capacity of the eye health workforce and providing the infrastructure and equipment for them to deliver quality services to those that need it most. In the past decade alone, VAO has established 26 vision centres across 6 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, trained over 3,350 eye health personnel, and more than 1.4 million people have received eye tests through supported programmes. 

Vision for a Nation Foundation (VFAN) was established in 2011 by founder and philanthropist, James Chen. VFAN´s mission was to make eye care globally accessible in order to unlock economic growth and human potential of the world’s poorest communities.
In just over 5 years with the support of the founder, together with funding from DFID, USAID and UBS Optimus Foundation, VFAN transformed eye care in Rwanda (2012-2018). VFAN enabled the Rwandan government to make Primary Eye Care (PEC) universally accessible to the entire population. Building on the success from Rwanda, VFAN expanded operations in Ghana (Central and Upper East Regions), from 2019 to 2022. The Ghana programmes was supported with further funding from James Chen and with grants from USAID, UBS Optimus Foundation and Medicor Foundation.

Some of VFAN’s key achievements are as follows:

• Provided eye care services to over 1 million people in Rwanda.
• Helped to reduce the cost of eye care by up to 80% in Rwanda.
• Developed and implemented sustainable eye care programs in Rwanda.
• Collaborated with governments, health ministries, eye care professionals, and other NGOs to improve access to eye care.
• In Ghana, VFAN trained 359 nurses and provided over 67,000 vision assessments during the programme lifetime.

Stronger together

Coming off the back of COVID-19 and the ever-shrinking international development funding pot, the two organisations decided in late 2021 that it would be in their best interests to seek a longer-term partnership which would allow them to combine forces and scale their ambition. The subsequent merger would enable the newly named Vision Action to scale up its operations and to build their PEC capacity.

The collaboration demonstrated commitment from both VAO and VFAN who previously had benefitted from a good working relationship built over five years, starting in 2017. On the 1st March 2022, the two organisations shared a joint mandate of enabling people living in poverty to access affordable eye care and glasses and achieve greater efficiency and impact through this joint endeavour. VFAN’s team in Ghana became Vision Action staff, and Vision Action invited both VFAN’s CEO and a trustee to join their Board of Trustees. VFAN’s founder, James Chen, has also become a Patron of Vision Action. This will help to embed VFAN’s spirit of innovation and assist in the transformation that this opportunity brings. 

Vision Action will continue to provide VFAN’s programme in Ghana, in line with their mission. The combined expertise of the two organisations will help to increase impact over the coming years and bring essential eye care services to those that need it most. Our programmes in Ghana will build on the legacy of VFAN in delivering Primary Eye Care for communities and school-based screening for children.

By bringing the two organisations together, our offer is more comprehensive and plays to our combined strengths, so we can have greater impact for sustainable access to eye care not only in Ghana but also in Sierra Leone, Zambia and Ethiopia.

Moving forward: Our 2030 strategy is now well underway, focussing on 3 key objectives: 

1) To support the development of Human Resources for Eye Health (HREH) through education and training for optometry cadres and primary health workers; 

2) To strengthen essential eye health services through the integration of primary eyecare into primary healthcare, integration of eye health into school health, strengthening supply chains for affordable glasses and equipment, and exploring alternative solutions to increase reach such as testing new technology an innovation; and 

3) The engagement and mobilization of communities to increase awareness, knowledge, health-seeking behaviour and demand for services, and to ensure a continuum of care.

With programmes currently in 4 countries and ambitions to expand our reach, Vision Action acts as a catalyst, providing global expertise and technical knowledge in partnership with others, to demonstrate good quality, impactful and innovative programme models, based on sound evidence, research and international/global guidelines. Our programmes will generate further evidence to advocate for and support scale-up, working with national governments and other partners and working internationally as part of broader advocacy and campaigning coalitions.


Vision Aid Overseas (VAO) was founded by a group of volunteer optometrists and dispensing opticians led by Brian Ellis MBE following a trip to Tanzania. The group were shocked by the number of people, especially children, who were disadvantaged by poor eyesight due to the lack of access to affordable eye tests and glasses.


VAO is awarded charitable status


Our first newsletter is released to our initial 146 members! Full of photos and news from our overseas assignments


After seeking ways to sort and grade donated glasses the ‘SpecSort’ recycling project was launched, partnering with Lewes Prison to help inmates to learn new skills and support the growing work of VAO.

Brian Ellis was made the first Honorary Life member and given the title of Founder Chairman.

Policy decision was made to expand trustee representation from outside the immediate shere of Optometry.


Margaret Carey becomes the first Director of VAO


The newsletter is re-released under the new name ‘Outlook’


Grand Ball at Savoy Hotel London, 300 attendees raised in excess of £13,500


Titanium membership and Friends of VAO were launched to raise funds


10th Anniversary was celebrated with the recording of Vision for Africa (John Peel Promotions)


Founder Brian Ellis appointed an MBE in the New year honours list for his work with VAO


VAO moves to Crawley in the UK and opens offices and a warehouse


First Vision Centre supported, in Ethiopia


Sir Trevor McDonald and Fiona Bruce elected Honorary Vice Presidents


20th Anniversary celebrated at Burleigh Court Conference Centre and a BBC appeal with Fiona Bruce

Sight for Sore Eyes published, written by Brian Ellis


VAO stops sending used glasses overseas on direction of Global Standards for eye care.

Partnership with Specsavers started with long-term funding for Zambia (the latest  phase 6 of funding agreed goes up to 2023).


The Dame Mary Perkins optical training centre/Vision Centre opened in Zambia, supported by Specsavers.


VAO celebrated 30 years anniversary, supporting 19 Vision Centres in total across Ethiopia, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Botswana and Burkina Faso, providing screening, refraction and glasses.


Incorporation of Optometry Giving Sight (OGS) fundraising in the UK until 2021. Income surpassed £1 million.


New CEO started, Nicola Chevis, starting a programme of continuing transformation for the organisation.

We also saw the successful conclusion of the project in Ethiopia funded by DfID and Essilor and delivered in partnership with Ethiopian NGO Grarbet Tehadiso Mahber (GTM), which screened over 184,000 people in southern Ethiopia for eye conditions.


With the support of Henry Smith, MP for Crawley and with sponsorship from our Corporate Partners Specsavers and Essilor, we hosted an event “Vision Matters: Leave No-One Behind”, in March 2018 at the House of Commons to ask Governments, development partners and stakeholders in all countries to act to support Universal Eye Health coverage by 2020, to allocate the necessary resources within global, regional and national budgets and for all stakeholders to form innovate partnerships to enable Universal Eye Health. Over 100 MPs, International Development charities, the private sector, donors and High Commissioners attended and went away with a very clear message about what needs to be done.


Started Primary Eye Care and School Eye Health in Sierra Leone, piloted a new school eye health programme in Zambia and Ethiopia and started to explore a model of social enterprise for the delivery of eye care and glasses in Ghana.

VAO received its first grant from the US AID Childhood Blindness Programme for School Eye Health in Sierra Leone, expanding this partnership to all our countries (Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia) by 2022.

Welcomed new Chair Nora Colton and four new trustees expanding the Board to 12 trustees.

The global eye care community welcomed the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Report on Vision in October 2019, which brought much needed attention to the problems caused by Visual Impairment caused by Uncorrected Refractive Error (URE). (link to report)

VAO completed a review into its Volunteering Programme resulting in a changed strategy for volunteering, changes started to be implemented in 2020.  Find out more.


VAO decides to cease its recycling of glasses operation following an organisational review (link to page?)

The COVID pandemic starts to effect our operations and income, which dips under £1 million for the first time in 5 years.


VAO and Specsavers celebrate 10 years of working together in Zambia (link to page and video?). We estimate that over half a million people have been screened across Specsavers supported programmes over the past 10 years.

VAO relinquishes its offices and warehouse in Crawley and moves to hybrid working during the COVID pandemic (home and Freedom Works co-working space)

VAO’s new Strategy to 2030 – A clear future in sight approved. Country Strategies to 2026 in development

Professional volunteers continued to support our programmes and partners throughout the COVID pandemic through switching to online and remote training formats and setting up a remote mentoring scheme.

Over the last 5 years (2017-2021) we have screened nearly 1 million people for eye diseases, given nearly 400,000 eye exams and refractions and given more than 150,000 pairs of glasses and trained more than 2,000 people to conduct screenings (mostly eye health staff, community health workers and teachers) and eye health staff to undertake eye exams.

Vision Aid Overseas elected to the Steering Group of the new Coalition for Clear Vision, set up to achieve “affordable and permanent access to quality eye care services and glasses for all who need them throughout the world by 2050”. It is a global coalition of eye health NGOs, social enterprises, private-sector and professional organisations committed to developing solutions, scaling services and creating markets.


VAO releases its new Strategy to 2030 – A clear future in sight

2022 Vision For A Nation (VFAN) transitions its programme and staff in Ghana to VAO and we start a brand refresh