Lucky Iron Fish: A conversation with social entrepreneur and CEO Gavin Armstrong

Updated Nov 12, 2019
There are many treatments for iron deficiency anemia – a condition that leads to a person having abnormally low levels of red blood cells. For a number of the 1.62 billion people affected by it worldwide, finding accessible and sustainable treatment can be a challenge. When Gavin Armstrong took a leap of faith to start Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise, he had a vision to tackle the issue by providing an affordable and easy way for individuals to attain a healthy level of iron. 

Facing such a great task, Lucky Iron Fish is partnering with World Vision Canada to expand its impact. World Vision has the global reach and capacity to integrate the Lucky Iron Fish into health programs to help mostly women, girls and boys to combat iron related illnesses.

We chatted with Gavin to learn more about the product and his journey as a social entrepreneur. We also asked him to share some advice for those who want to make a difference in the world.
1. Tell us about the Lucky Iron Fish. What it is and how it works.

The Lucky Iron Fish is an effective, safe and affordable solution to treat and prevent iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia, the world’s largest nutritional challenge.

The Lucky Iron Fish is an iron ingot made from food grade electrolytic iron. This type of iron is highly absorbable by the body and commonly used in food fortification. The Lucky Iron Fish simply needs to be boiled for 10 minutes in any liquid (soup, rice, water, curry etc.), with a few drops of citric/acid, to release a significant portion of your daily iron needs.

Because the Lucky Iron Fish releases a lower dose of iron, users do not experience any negative side effects or any change in smell, taste or look of the food it is boiled with.

Most importantly, the Lucky Iron Fish can be used by the entire family to both prevent and treat iron deficiency, and it lasts five years!

A woman holds an iron fish with a wooden spoon on top of a cooking pot that rests in a dirt floor.The Iron Fish is spotted in pots everywhere in Shinyanga, Tanzania, where World Vision has been implementing its project in partnership with Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise. Photo: Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise​

2. How pervasive is the issue of iron deficiency around the world? How does that affect developing countries in particular?

Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is the world’s largest micronutrient disorder, primarily impacting women and children. Iron deficiency knows no borders, and we see instances of IDA across the globe, in every country.

However, socio-economic status and diet can play a large role in causing iron deficiency. In low- and middle-income countries (LCIMs), we see higher rates of iron deficiency, especially among adolescent girls, pregnant women and children under five.

We also see higher rates in rural settings. Where we are working with World Vision Canada in Shinyanga, Tanzania, we see extremely high rates of IDA, with up to 70% of children under five diagnosed as anemic. That is a huge public health problem that creates grave health and socio-economic impacts.

Iron is vital for cognitive development in children, so it’s imperative that children get enough iron in their diet as their brains develop.

For women, iron deficiency can impact their health and socio-economic status. It is estimated that a person who is iron deficient earns, on average, 20% less than their non-iron deficient counterparts. For pregnant women, iron deficiency can impact their health and the health of their baby, with iron deficiency linked to preterm births.

A woman in Tanzania holding her baby and showing off an iron fishMother and baby receive training from World Vision staff in Shinyanga, Tanzania. Photo: Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise

3. What is the backstory? What inspired you to start the company?

I came from a background in commerce, but after conducting humanitarian work and research in Dadaab, Kenya, I knew that I wanted to do more, to find work with purpose and use business as a tool to generate change. Lucky Iron Fish came out of a PhD thesis research at the University of Guelph. Dr. Christopher Charles first started the research in Cambodia in 2008. I joined in 2012 to help commercialize the innovation and move beyond Cambodia. A portrait of Lucky Iron Fish Company CEO and co-founder Gavin Armstrong

The Lucky Iron Fish came to be a fish through a series of iterations. It started as an iron block, but local villagers were hesitant to add a block of iron to their food because it literally looked like a piece of trash from the side of the road. After testing many different shapes, it was decided that the kantrop fish, a symbol of luck in Cambodia, was the most accepted. When the women who were using the Lucky Iron Fish started feeling better, they attributed it to the luck of the Fish, thus our name was born.

Since we started, we continue to iterate on our product, moving from cast iron to electrolytic iron. We have also created a new product, the Lucky Shakti Leaf, for our work in India and expanded our research and work across the globe, working in Canada, USA, Australia, the EU, India, Tanzania, Benin, Senegal, Guatemala, Peru, Dominican Republic, Haiti and beyond.

Gavin Armstrong, President and CEO of Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise. Photo: Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise

4. Tell us about the impact the LIF has had in people’s lives here in Canada and abroad.

To date, Lucky Iron Fish has positively impacted the lives of over 850,000 people and we are just getting started. Our goal is to put a Lucky Iron Fish in the pot of everyone that needs one.

We reached over 80 countries around the world with our simple innovation, thanks largely in part to incredible organizations like World Vision.

Lucky Iron Fish has been clinically proven to increase iron status (both circulating and stored iron) and to reduce iron deficiency anemia. We also see high rates of compliance with our product due to the lack of negative side effects and ease of use. We have quantitative data that proves the Lucky Iron Fish works, and we love hearing anecdotal insights from users who state that they are feeling better, are less tired, are missing fewer days of work and that their children are doing better in school after using our Lucky Iron Fish regularly.

A girl from Cambodia holds a small box with the Lucky Iron Fish. “After visiting the doctor and using the Lucky Iron Fish for several months, her symptoms have stopped completely, and she is feeling more energetic. Her attendance and performance in school have improved as a result,” Mother of a Lucky Iron Fish user in Cambodia. Photo: Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise

5. What challenges does LIF face and how do you respond to those?

Running an international business can present many challenges. An example of one such challenge was when we were looking to expand our work into India. We found that with many people being vegetarian, the Fish was not a suitable shape.

We listened and adapted and created the Lucky Shakti Leaf. It functions in the same way as the Fish but is shaped like a tulsi leaf. For us, it is imperative that we adapt to wherever we are working as each region and community has different needs. We adapt to this by working with organizations and co-creating nutrition programs that work in the local context.

6. Can you tell us about the partnership with World Vision Canada?

World Vision is a leader in nutrition and a natural alignment for Lucky Iron Fish. We are experts in iron deficiency and our product, but we know we cannot be the ones implementing programs around the globe as we do not know the local context or have the trust and buy in. That is why we look for partners with strong community ties and a proven track record for delivering quality and impactful programming, like World Vision.

For us, monitoring and evaluation to ensure projects are impactful is important. We are excited by our partnership with World Vision Canada as this will allow the Lucky Iron Fish to be distributed to many households in Tanzania and other countries, complete with comprehensive training, follow up and impact results.

A woman in Tanzania holds a training manual provided by World Vision on how to use the Lucky Iron FishMothers in Shinyanga, Tanzania received training from World Vision staff in how to use the Iron Fish. Photo: Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise

7. LIF is an example of how a person’s idea and resolve can generate real-life positive impact in the world. What is your advice to those that are eager to make a difference in the world?

My advice to anyone eager to create change is to start getting involved. It seems simple, but many people don’t take that first step.

If you are interested in a specific issue, do your research and engage with those who are already in the field. There are many complex problems that need solving right now, they require many to get involved, and to provide a variety of perspectives and solutions.

You can start small by joining a club or group at your school or University or starting a committee at your work to address an issue you are passionate about. You can look to volunteer for organizations or join a board. Or, you can take the leap and start a business: there are so many incredible resources for those looking to start a business these days. I recommend starting with the “why” - what is the problem you are looking to solve, why hasn’t it been solved, why is it such a big issue and what are the impacts?