Jérôme Lapaire, Founder & CEO of Lapaire Glasses tells us about the eyewear industry and the impact of Covid-19.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jérôme Lapaire: I am doing well, thanks for asking!
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Lapaire Glasses?
Jérôme Lapaire: My career started miles away from Africa and the Optical industry, but I have always been an entrepreneur at heart!
After a few projects in Hong Kong and London, I moved to Nairobi, Kenya, in March 2015. I quickly joined an impact investment fund and then worked in a market research agency to better understand the local market.
After a few years, I wanted to reconnect with entrepreneurship, putting together my skills and ideas to bring something good to the local community. While working with Kenyans, some of which had refractive errors remaining uncorrected, I realized that accessibility is the main problem in health services. Consulting an eye specialist and getting eyeglasses requires a lot of time and money, which most people cannot afford in Kenya.
In Feb. 2018, I set up a small team with 2 interns (who are still part of Lapaire), and we launched Lapaire Glasses in Nairobi with an innovative concept and a big social impact. Shortly after, we caught the eye of a VC Fund, Saviu Ventures, who loved our project and supported our growth.
How does Lapaire Glasses innovate?
Jérôme Lapaire: We innovate with our very accessible services!
We started Lapaire by proposing free vision tests and quality eyewear from USD 30 to corporates and public institutions in Kenya at their workplace. They just book a slot with us to conduct an awareness and vision tests campaign, and our professional team comes to them. We work with partner organizations that care about their employees’ well-being and safety at work.
Today, we propose free vision tests across 7 African markets (14 Optical shops) and quality eyewear from USD 30 (inclusive of frame & lenses) with anti-glare and anti-scratch treatments. Our customers can order online or purchase at our shop, pay in 3 instalments and get delivery for free (or at a very small fee if located outside our coverage).
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jérôme Lapaire: The first wave hit us hard because Governments imposed a lockdown and customers couldn’t come to do the vision test at our optical shops. We had to postpone appointments several times until customers came again to us.
We’ve put in place all the necessary measures to prevent everyone from getting infected in our Optical shops: our teams wear face masks, customers have to clean their hands with sanitiser when entering our shops, eyeglasses and optical equipment are cleaned after each customer. Our teams have adapted to the context to ensure keeping everyone safe.
Our office staff has been working partly from home, and we decided to use this time efficiently; we did not just sit down, close our hands and wait; we challenged our business model to cope well with the situation, push further some internal projects and develop strategies beyond the ordinary to remain big in the market.
Other than that, our business hasn’t been affected too much because eyeglasses are a necessary product.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jérôme Lapaire: During the first wave, we had to let some employees go to reduce our operating expenses and stay afloat. Fortunately, quickly enough, our business has come back to normal, and we were able to stick back to our growth plan and recruit more people.
Running a business in Africa generally goes with some risks related to economics or politics in general; we are used to versatile situations.
We also had to adapt our supply chain to face countries lockdown and ensure final delivery to our customers. It requires us to react very quickly after governmental measures were announced because our customers need to get their eyeglasses, and we want them to be satisfied with our services.
This crisis has helped us learn to have backup plans at all levels, adapt quickly to governmental measures, also to adapt our ways of working in our optical shops and finally, like many other businesses, we invest more in digital tools wherever we can.
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Jérôme Lapaire: We rely heavily on digital communications for internal and external purposes; we also rely on a connected CRM that allows us to see in real-time what is happening in all our different locations.
As travelling between regions and countries has become more challenging with lockdowns and curfew restrictions going on and off, it is really important for us to use more digital tools to keep working every day across all departments (sales, communications, marketing, HR, supply chain etc.).
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jérôme Lapaire: We mostly compete with location and independent optical shops who were probably hit harder than us because they mostly rely on traditional working habits with little digital.
As a pan-African company, we are lucky to have numerous locations across Africa; when there is a lockdown in a country, there is business happening somewhere else. It allows us to reduce the risk somehow.
Your final thoughts?
Jérôme Lapaire: The Pandemic has surprised all of us, but we are confident that it is accelerating digitization in the workplace and in business strategies. We can say that we are now better equipped to face diverse crises in the future. Business in Africa has remained strong for necessity products like eyeglasses, and we can only be grateful for that.