What Optica has seen in 58 years of eye-care business

Optica head of retail Wazeem Mohamed with Mike Karanja (centre) and Luke Odhiambo, the two longest serving employees. PHOTO | COURTESY
Optica head of retail Wazeem Mohamed with Mike Karanja (centre) and Luke Odhiambo, the two longest serving employees. PHOTO | COURTESY 

While Kenya’s eye-care industry has evolved over the years, with new technicians setting up across the country, one brand that has seemingly blossomed with the change is Optica.

Optica is a family-owned business which Bharat Bhardwaj, the current non-executive chairman, started 58 years ago on Nairobi’s Moi Avenue.
Armed with a loan of Sh6,000 and two employees, Mr Bharat launched the business.

Today, Optica has 30 branches (16 in Nairobi) spread across the country and a team of 300 employees.

Every year, the business sells more than 10,000 units of spectacles.

“We are going to be 60 years in 2019 and are hoping by then to have 60 outlets across the country,” says Kush Bhardwaj, Optica’s managing director and Bharat’s son.

Two weeks ago, Optica opened a new branch at the newly-refurbished Village Market. Plans are also under way to open a branch in Kiambu, Athi River and Kericho.

Over the years, it has bought out two competitors: V M Browse Group and Oskar Walch.

During its formative years, the bulk of clients were the well-to-do in society, mostly government officials and businesspeople who had the knowledge of eyesight problems, the options available to them and the money to acquire them.

Head of retail Wazeem Mohamed says increased awareness has widened their customer base. “Starting out, our business was limited to only a certain class of the society; individuals who knew about what we offer and could afford them,” Mr Mohamed told Enterprise.

“Today, eyewear is not limited to individuals with eyesight problems; they are also used as a fashion statement. Others also wear spectacles to safeguard them against the effects of extended exposure to computer screens.”

At the Village Market, for instance, Optica has stocked frames moulded using gold that go for Sh300,000.

Optica stocks about 10,000 different frames and offers all major ophthalmic lens brands. Each frame comes in six options, addressing colour and size needs.

Optica sources its lenses from Essilor, a France-based company, that produces ophthalmic lenses and attendant equipment.

Essilor, which produced brands like Polaroid and Essilor, is set to merge with Luxottica, an Italian eyewear firm which manufactures brands such as Ray-Ban and Oakley.

Mr Bhardwaj says that to ensure their technicians remain on top of their game, Optica occasionally sends them to Essilor for skills upgrade and work with equipment at source.

“We take keen interest in our backend (the lenses source) just like we are critical of our front-end which includes our shops and employees,” Mr Bhardwaj said during the opening of the new branch at Village Market.

However, seven years ago, Optica ventured into making its own eyewear, launching a brand called Oxygene in the local market even as they continued stocking international brands.

The brand had been customised to fit the African face shape, the company explains the Oxygene innovation. Three years ago, it introduced another of its own brands — Cactus — to build on the successes of the first innovation.

“We developed Cactus to serve this niche and it is doing exceptionally well. We have even got inquiries from other opticians on other continents,” said Mr Bhardwaj.

The management tours the biggest exhibitions in the world to sample and buy new frame designs, he said, revealing the competition that drives the industry.

According to Bhardwaj, the countries that are leading in terms of fashion, colour and “thinking outside the box” in the eyewear space are Italy, France, Germany and Spain.

While adapting to the new trends has seen Optica survive and relish the wave of change, the senior Bhardwaj, who is now 83 years old, says the business owes its success to going “to where the people are.”