Philanthropist Tej Kohli is on a mission to combat blindness in the developing world.


What drives London philanthropist Tej Kohli?

Tej Kohli enjoys an enviable lifestyle which reflects the wealth that he has amassed since launching and later selling a series of payment technology companies. He can boast a collection of ultra-rare hyper cars, multiple homes and a wine collection that rivals those of the most discerning collectors. But Kohli’s true life mission and the thing that he is building his legacy on is not material assets. It is curing people of blindness in the developing world as a catalyst for boosting social and economic development.

Kohli co-founded the Tej Kohli And Ruit Foundation in 2021 and within eighteen months it had screened over 150,000 people and cured nearly 18,000 of blindness. The Foundation focuses on reaching disenfranchised people and communities in the low-income countries of the developing world. It is on track to cure at least 300,000 of blindness by 2030. All of the activities of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation are funded by Tej Kohli and the Kohli family.

The Tej Kohli And Ruit Foundation is the culmination of nearly a decade of Kohli supporting projects that have sought to prevent and cure needless blindness. His Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in India cured 43,255 patients of corneal blindness during its existence between 2015 and 2019. And in 2021 he pledged $2m to Harvard Medical School to support the development of nano-string and DNA hybridization technologies to prevent blindness.

But the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation is different, because it is not a partnership of existing organisations, but is a new NGO that was first conceived by Tej Kohli and his co-founder – pre-eminent ‘God of Sight’ ophthalmologist Dr Sanduk Ruit – during the first COVID19 lockdowns of 2020. By March 2021, and despite the significant operational challenges presented by COVID19, the two men had employed staff and opened offices, and launched an inaugural outreach camp that cured 312 people blindness at the birthplace of Buddha.

Tej Kohli and Dr Sanduk Ruit amongst 333 patients who were cured of cataract blindness in a remote region of Nepal.

The timing of the creation of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation was critical. The disruption of COVID worsened the backlog of untreated blindness that has long persisted in the developing world. Eye care operations were delayed by years whilst medical facilities and doctors were requisitioned to deal with the pandemic. Since a lack of vision is not life-threatening, most healthcare systems were quick to suspend their treatment activities.

Tej Kohli has placed his new NGO at the forefront of the resurgence in the fight against needless blindness. By the end of 2022 the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation will have welcomed more than 200,000 patients as Kohli and Ruit accelerate their efforts. Each patient interaction costs the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation approximately £100, which is a fraction of the equivalent cost of treatment in Western countries thanks to a technology invented by Dr Ruit. Kohli – an electrical engineer by background – has also engineered the processes of the NGO so that the maximum impact is achieved for every single pound of spend.

In this regard Kohli is far from being a mere advocate and financier of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation. He is also actively involved at the heart of the NGO, enthusiastically attending large-scale treatment camps in Nepal and Bhutan, where he nurses patients, attends surgeries and later helps patients to remove their bandages after they have been cured of blindness by Dr Ruit and the team of Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation surgeons.

Tej Kohli comforts a patient who has been cured of blindness in Bhutan.

As the father of a daughter, Kohli has also imbibed the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation with one of his longstanding passions: empowering women and girls in disenfranchised communities. Kohli’s past work helping children includes a food bank in Costa Rica that has fed hundreds of families every day for over fifteen years; as well as a project to provide bionic limbs for limb-different children in the UK. At the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation Kohli has made a commitment to reduce childhood congenital cataracts by 25% in Nepal. The NGO has already cured its first young patients, who in every case have been able to return to school having previously dropped out of their education due to their deteriorating eyesight.

That Tej Kohli is able to support such a large-scale project as the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation without taking any third-party donations or funding is the result of good business acumen and some very savvy investments. Kohli makes no secret of the fact that his early life included a personal and professional failure that it would not be fair to dwell on over thirty years later. But it gave him a steely determination to succeed and to give back to society.

Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundarion co-founders Tej Kohli and Dr Sanduk Ruit inside a temporary makeshift operating theatre build inside a school in Nepal.

That determination led Kohli to found a series of companies that were leaders in white labelled online payment technologies in ‘high risk’ sectors during the dot com boom. After selling these companies, Kohli diversified into real estate, focusing on high-growth technology clusters such as Berlin, Dubai and Gurgaon. He also launched his Kohli Ventures investment vehicle in 2006 to invest in ventures in AI, robotics and esports; as well as private market investments in companies including SpaceX and Primary Wave.

The sale of his companies meant that Tej Kohli could scale up his philanthropic ambitions. As he explains in his 2020 book ‘Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook’, Kohli’s choice of blindness as his cause was borne from his desire to adopt a cause that received little-to-no mainstream attention. 90% of untreated blindness occurs in the remote and marginalised communities in the developing world, where it has detrimental social and economic impact and also disproportionately inhibits women and young girls.

Dr Sanduk Ruit performs surgery to cure a patient of cataract blindness in a makeshift operating theatre inside a school in a remote village in Nepal.

the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation is aligned entirely with the global #2030InSight mission to make vision and quality eye care a universal right. Kohli regards his purpose as contributing to the #1 UN Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating poverty, and claims that curing cataract blindness “turbo charges” economic development by delivering a 1,500% socio-economic return of the cost of surgery within one year of curing someone of blindness.

Many authoritative studies seem to bear this view out. A review on poverty and its consequences in developing nations found that 64% of those living in poverty with disabilities were not on poverty prior to the onset of disability. A study in Pakistan found that blindness was three times more prevalent in poorer clusters of population. A third study shows that 75% of visually impaired people in developing countries need to be led by a sighted adult or child - often disenfranchising other family members work or education.

According to Forbes just 10% of multi-millionaires in the UK give to charity, which makes Tej Kohli, with his huge ambition and financial commitment, something of an outlier. Kohli has also previously written about his disdain for conventional models of charitable giving and for the trend for ‘activism’ that doesn’t include actual actions to help those in need. His brand of philanthropy is aggressively independent and focuses not on donations, but on creating new grassroots movements that employ local people and expertise, bringing them into his NGO and giving them whatever funding that it takes to make a tangible local impact.

When a particularly remote or disenfranchised community does not have the requisite expertise to treat and cure the blindness that so often blights lives and diminishes prospects, the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation ships in clinicians and surgeons and ophthalmologists to cure people of cataract blindness on masse at large scale outreach camps. Most weeks the NGO executes makeshift operating theatres in local schools or temples, and a typical outreach camp can see hundreds of people cured of blindness.

Dr Ruit and Tej Kohli comfort a patient who has been cured of blindness at a large scale outreach camp in Nepal.

Kohli’s NGO is also committed to technology transfer and the training of local doctors and clinicians to create a legacy of sustainable eye care infrastructure in every single community that the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation visits. This is a core part of the legacy that Kohli and Dr Ruit - who are both aged in their sixties – are building to last for generations. It is the only way to solve the problem of untreated blindness, which is increasing in cases each year as falling extreme poverty increases life expectancy and creates more aged populations.

In building this legacy, Kohli and Ruit have already provided treatment to thousands of people in Nepal and have entered into a project with the Health Ministry of Bhutan to clear the country’s entire backlog of untreated cataracts within five years after it was exacerbated by COVID. And in Tanzania, the Tej Kohli And Ruit Foundation is not just providing treatments, but is working closely with the Government to increase the comparatively low success rate of its own existing program of surgical interventions to cure cataract blindness.

According to the World Health Organization around 40 million people in the world are bilaterally blind (both eyes) and half are blind due to cataracts. Another 250 million have some form of visual impairment. 79 million of them are visually impaired due to cataracts. The overwhelming majority of these people – approximately 90% - live in low-income communities in the developing world, and many can be easily cured with surgery.

Yet even if Kohli and Ruit can hit their target and cure 500,000 of cataract blindness by 2030, it will make only a small dent in reducing the 99 million people in the world who are often suffering unnecessarily with cataracts that could be easily cured. The hope of the two founders is that by sharing their story, more Governments, charities, NGOs and philanthropists will also adopt the cause and rally around the #2030InSight mission.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by The Tej Kohli and Ruit Foundation .

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