Women in the world’s poorest communities are being empowered by projects to restore their sight
90% of the world’s blind live in low-income countries and 64.5% are women. A new program by London tycoon Tej Kohli and ‘God of Sight’ Dr Sanduk Ruit plans to screen 1,000,000 and cure at least 300,000 of cataract blindness by 2026.
14-year-old Bipani Rai was born with congenital cataracts that were slowly robbing her of her vision. Her school in the remote hills of Nepal did not have any special provision for the visually impaired and Bipani was having a hard time concentrating and couldn’t do her homework. Despite often being excluded from playtime and social occasions, Bipani was cheerful and didn’t lose hope that blindness would not end her educational journey.
In June 2021 her mother heard about a temporary surgical camp that was being constructed in the Solukhumbu region of Nepal, in the remote foothills of Mount Everest. Within one day of arriving at the microsurgical outreach camo with her mother and sister, Bipani had been cured of cataracts in a surgery that lasted just seven minutes. With her blindness cured, Bipani hopes to be able to study hard and pursue her big ambitions.
Little could Bipani and her family have known when they set out from their modest home for the surgical camp that she would be treated by ‘God of Sight’ Dr. Sanduk Ruit, one of the world’s best eye surgeons. Dr Ruit has formed a new partnership with London tycoon Tej Kohli that is funding the screening of 1,000,000 people like Bipani who are suffering needlessly with blindness that can be cured. Women will be the main beneficiaries.
90% of the world’s visually impaired live in low-income countries where women account for 64.5% of the blind. Girls are often disenfranchised from healthcare opportunities and are more likely miss out on education to care for blind family members than men. All of this perpetuates a cycle where blindness causes poverty which causes more blindness. Tej Kohli and Dr Sanduk Ruit hope to break this cycle by taking treatment directly to those in need.
At another microsurgical outreach camp, the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation team hiked deep into the hills to access the home of Dolma Tamang, who had been living with blindness for two years. After the team diagnosed Dolma with cataracts, her son left his work in the nearby fields to carry his mother on his back for the long trek down to a 4x4. After reaching the surgical camp, Dolma was cured of her blindness within just a few hours of arrival.
Soorya Mani Rai was so stunned to be able to see again after receiving cataract surgery that it took her a while to comprehend the world around her. She used to spend her days grazing her goats, visiting the local market and running around her remote village in Nepal to meet neighbours and to gossip. But since becoming blind due to cataracts Soorya had become almost entirely confined to her remote mountain home. With her vision restored, she is now looking forward to living a normal life again.
Murathi Parsi visited a Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation surgical outreach camp in Lumbini wearing her most beautiful saree for the occasion. Her husband had cycled over ten miles with her on the back of his bicycle to get her to the camp. Murathi told the clinical team that sometimes when she was eating, the local dogs would steal food from her plate. But just 15 minutes after leaving the operating theatre, Dr Sanduk Ruit removed Murathi’s bandages, and she could see clearly again for the first time in years.
Worldwide approximately 285 million people are visually impaired, and 39 million people are believed to be blind. 90% of all blindness is in low-income countries, where 80% of blindness is left undiagnosed, untreated, and unaddressed. The World Health Organization estimates that the global productivity losses due to needless blindness are over $269 billion.
94 million people worldwide are affected by cataracts, which is the world’s leading cause of blindness and visual impairment. One of the biggest and most expensive challenges when curing cataract blindness is not the surgery but locating those in need and then transporting them to a place of treatment.
When a Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation team were travelling in the remove foothills of Mount Everest, they found Shri Mani Rai. She was completely blind and living in abject poverty in a one-room stone brick home. She spent her days in darkness, sitting in one corner of the house. After a six-hour ride in a 4x4 on precarious mountain tracks, a clinical team delivered Shri to a surgical camp where Dr Sanduk Ruit cured her of blindness.
Giving women like Bipani, Dolma, Soorya, Murathi and Shri a second chance in life is what motivated Tej Kohli to dedicate a portion of his wealth to combating blindness. “I do it because second chances matter” says Kohli, “And what bigger second chance is there than being cured of blindness after living in the dark. When you cure someone of blindness you enable them to become economically active, so they help to reduce poverty in their community, but most importantly you empower them to live happy and fulfilling lives.”
The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation is a restricted fund operating under the auspices of Prism the Gift Fund, a registered UK charity. Since April 2021 it has cured 2,223 people of blindness. COVID19 slowed progress, but Kohli remains optimistic about the mission to cure 300,000 of cataract blindness by 2026 by taking low-cost cataract surgeries into poor and remote communities in Nepal, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Myanmar, India and China.
The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation combines Kohli’s wealth with Dr Ruit’s expertise. Indian-born Tej Kohli made his fortune launching and selling a series of companies specialising in online payments and services at the height of the dot com boom. He grew his wealth by investing in real estate, AI, e-commerce, biotech, esports and cryptocurrency. Kohli funded his first operations to cure blindness in India in 2010 and by 2019 had funded over 40,000 procedures to cure blindness in remote and underserved communities in Asia.
His co-founder Dr Ruit has already restored the sight of over 130,000 people and in 2006 he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, which is considered to be the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. In 1995 Dr Ruit developed a new method for delivering high-volume cataract surgeries using a low-cost inter-ocular lens that he developed. Ruit’s treatment has the same success rate as Western techniques but is 90% cheaper.
“Due to population growth and ageing populations, 115 million people worldwide could be blind by 2050 if the problem of unaddressed blindness is not solved. Today we can achieve something far greater than what we ever could have imagined” says Dr Ruit. “We have the passion, expertise and resources to tackle the problem of needless cataract blindness on a completely new scale like never before.”