Lucky Iron Fish: Fighting iron deficiency across the globe

Fighting the global issue that is iron deficiency, Lucky Iron Fish provides people around the globe with an easy way to supplement their diet.

by Julia Migné

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In Cambodia, the iron deficiency rate for women can reach up to 50% of some populations. © Lucky Iron Fish

Are you feeling constantly tired, struggling to work and focus, or easily exhausted and short of breath? These are the symptoms experienced by people suffering from iron deficiency, the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world.

Affecting a large number of women and children in developing countries, the nutrient deficiency is also significantly prevalent in developed countries and a total of two billion people are anaemic across the globe.

Volunteering in Cambodia in 2008, Canadian science graduate Christopher Charles witnessed the impact that iron deficiency was having on the local communities, and decided to take a stand by designing a little iron fish which once boiled in liquid would provide up to 90% of the recommended daily iron intake.

Joined by Gavin Armstrong, the venture became a social enterprise called Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise (LIFE) and the fish started being commercialised around the world. Clinical trials showed that regular use of the fish reduces the prevalence of anemia by up to 46%. Since its first sale in 2015, LIFE has now sold over 100,000 fishes, adding iron to the diet of around 500,000 people across the globe.

Gavin Armstrong explains to INKLINE how Lucky Iron Fish came to life and what’s coming next for the social enterprise.

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INKLINE: How did you hear of Christopher Charles’ research and how did you get involved?

Gavin Armstrong: I actually went to university with Chris. We were both at the university of Guelph, which is in Ontario, and I went to visit him in Cambodia, and I saw the work he was doing with what he called the Happy Fish. I thought it was incredible and I saw a really great opportunity to have a global impact on iron deficiency – that’s why I started working with him, did my own research on it, and then commercialised it.

I: Why was Christopher in Cambodia in the first place?

G: He was actually volunteering there and trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his academic career. He didn’t know what area of research he was going to focus on so he took some time off and he was working with a water filtration NGO in rural Cambodia. He saw the need for adding iron to the diet because he saw that profound impact iron deficiency was having on  people.

 

The Lucky Iron Fish is a natural cooking tool that will add natural iron to your diet. All you have to do is boil it for 10 minutes in one litre of acidified water or any other kind of liquid.

I: Why is iron deficiency such an important issue in Cambodia?

G: Iron deficiency is a global problem and it mainly impacts women and children and what’s really remarkable is that in developed countries, like Canada or the United Kingdom, they have low levels of iron deficiency which is still about 20% of the population.

So 20% is considered low but when you look at low income countries where it’s difficult to have access to nutritious food, the rates can be much higher like in Cambodia where for some populations it’s as high as 50% of women! In Cambodia, a lot of the staple meals are white rice so there’s not a lot of nutrients in that. We are looking out in India where dal is the main food cooked and actually in some communities there, 80% of women have iron deficiency so it’s a huge problem.

I: How does the Lucky Iron fish work?

G: The Lucky Iron Fish is a natural cooking tool that will add natural iron to your diet. All you have to do is boil it for 10 minutes in one litre of acidified water or any other kind of liquid. Just boiling it for 10 minutes can release a significant portion of your daily required iron intake and it doesn’t change the taste, colour, or smell of the food it’s cooked in and it can be reused by the whole family for five years.

I: Why did you decide to shape this cooking tool as a fish? 

G: It was all about consumer centred design! Instead of us going in with an idea, it’s actually going in and listening and talking to members of the community and influencers and see what they would like to use.

When Chris started with the Happy Fish, I know he did a lot of trial and error with a lot of other shapes like a lotus leaf, different kinds of fish, but at the end, it was by talking to these women that we realised that this specific fish look is something that they would put in their pots normally so it made sense to use it!

What’s really cool is that we’ve now expanded outside of Cambodia and the Lucky Iron Fish is available for sale in 66 countries around the world. The symbol of a fish has a lot of prominence in different cultures and religions, so the symbol of the fish is actually working in all these other countries as well. It might not necessarily be a symbol of luck but it still makes sense that you put it in your pot. So we get to keep the name, we get to keep the shape, and there are these fishes all over the world now!

I: Can you take us through the different steps of creating your social enterprise and the main challenges you faced along the way?

G: When I established the company as a social enterprise, I made a commitment to have a positive social impact embedded in everything that we did so it wasn’t just the product that was helping people. We have a commitment to reduce our environmental footprint, support diversity and equality in our hiring and in our practices globally, and we also have a commitment to transparency.

It was really easy at the beginning to have all of these ideals of the good things we were going to do, but when you actually have the realities of costs and cash flow, and actually having to be financially sustainable, that’s when you face a lot of tensions! But we persevered and we made this commitment to keeping our good things as a part of our culture and we actually registered to be a B-Corp,  which is an international certification for benefit companies.

B-Corp will reward us for doing all of these good things and to maintain our certification we have to meet a threshold of all the positive things that we do. That was a motivator for us to not give up and actually keep finding ways to be socially impactful and what’s really great is that we’ve been ranked in the top 10% of B-Corp internationally!

I: How did you get people interested in buying the first fish? What was your marketing strategy?

G: We tried a lot of different things that didn’t necessarily work very well. We tried door to door sales, we tried working with different organisations. But we found that the best way was to partner with non-profits who are embedded in the communities already. They have established trust and so by these NGOs giving out the fish, they can conduct the training, they can talk to the women about how to use it and then after the women use it they can come back and answer any questions they might have or concerns.

Not only is that really helpful for the adoption rate but we are also able to provide impact assessment tools so these NGOs can actually track the impact the fish are having, whether that’s an increase in iron status or reduction in signs and symptoms of iron deficiency. It’s a really great model for us to use!

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All people have to do is boil the Lucky Iron Fish for 10 minutes in one litre of liquid. © Lucky Iron Fish

I: How are you providing Lucky Iron Fish for free in developing countries? 

G: The largest way we provide fish globally is actually through our Buy One, Give One programme. For every fish we sell on our website,  we commit to donate one for free. A lot of people in Europe and in North America are buying the fish for themselves because they have iron deficiency and they hate taking iron pills, but they also have that added benefit of knowing that they are buying one for someone else. It’s been a major driver for our success.

I: Any future plans you’d like to share with us? 

G: We have plans for Latin America! We actually have two trials going on right now – one that is just finishing in Guatemala and another one about to finish in Dominican Republic.

We also have two trials going on right now in India. The country has very high rates of iron deficiency; it’s a very vegetarian population. We’ve identified them as a priority market. We’re looking at all sort of projects in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well. We are working with a private sector company in Nigeria and I also know there is an NGO buying the fish in Kenya. So it is definitely growing in lots of different countries!

I: Which advice would you give to the next generation of social entrepreneurs?

“If you don’t learn from failing it was just a waste so every failure should be treated as an opportunity to learn and grow.”

G: It’s really important to learn from your mistakes! I think failing as an entrepreneur is inevitable. You will fail multiple times; I have failed multiple times, but it’s important to acknowledge why you failed, reflect on it, learn from it and then apply that as you move forward. If you don’t learn from failing it was just a waste, so every failure should be treated as an opportunity to learn and grow.

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