How one man and thousands of fish are helping improve women’s health worldwide
Solving one of the world’s most common women’s health problems may be as simple as dropping a fish in water. Gavin Armstrong, Founder, President and CEO of Lucky Iron Fish, tells us how.
By Teresa Harris
Iron deficiency is the world’s most common micro-nutrient issue, and has a disproportionate negative impact on women and children. Instances are increasing, as the traditional method of combating iron deficiency via pill supplements is expensive, inaccessible to many, and simply not very effective. In short, worldwide we’re spending more on a problem that’s just getting worse.
Introducing Lucky Iron Fish, a sustainable solution to iron deficiency in the form of a simple cooking tool. When added to a cooking pot and boiled for ten minutes, the small, fish-shaped piece of iron can fortify your food with enough iron to noticeably alleviate symptoms of extreme iron deficiency.
The founder of Lucky Iron Fish is Gavin Armstrong, a University of Guelph graduate who has dedicated his career to the improving the health of individuals — primarily women and children — around the world.
Gavin realized an imminent need for a focus on micro-nutrient deficiency related health problems following a volunteer trip to a refugee camp in Northern Kenya, where he witnessed communities in dire need of proper nutrition.
“There is a ‘hidden hunger’ that often goes unrecognized, as the supplies food banks have to give usually don’t address micro-nutrient deficiencies. Thus we’re failing to address the questions of: What is the long term impact of a diet consisting solely on non-nutritious food, like beans and rice? And how does it affect these people’s development?”
Signs of iron deficiency range from dizziness to fatigue, and can even cause hemorrhaging and spells. Pregnant mothers are particularly vulnerable, as nearly every pregnant woman suffers from iron deficiency during and post pregnancy, and if untreated, their unborn child is at risk of its own associated health issues, including limited cognitive development.
“We’re failing to address the questions of: What is the long term impact of a diet consisting solely on non-nutritious food, like beans and rice? And how does it affect these people’s development?”
“When a mother is iron deficient, she can be so ill that she may miss work.” Gavin explains. Mothers in Cambodia lose approximately two weeks of work due to iron-deficiency related sickness. “When you consider their already meager income — about 70-80 cents per day — that’s a substantial loss.”
Upon returning to Canada, Gavin decided to set out on solving this issue.
With an undergraduate degree in commerce, a masters in rural planning and development, and a PhD in biomedical science, Gavin is the first to admit that his academic path has been what many would call “non-traditional.” But he appreciates that this unique path brought him to exactly where he needed to be, allowing him to recognize that in order for his solution to micro-nutrient deficiency to be successful, it needed to be sustainable.
The primary recipients of donated fish are nonprofits and clinics and organizations that are focused on women’s health and nutrition. These include food banks, First Nations organizations here in Canada, as well as nonprofit organizations in Cambodia and India, which allows Lucky Iron Fish to distribute as many fish as possible to the pots of families in need.
Yet, Gavin admits he’s made his share of mistakes. “I won’t say I’m infallible,” he concedes, having learned through trial and error that cultural differences play a huge role in how readily accepted new innovations will be. “I think that abroad, dispelling taboos and myths was our biggest challenge. ‘Deficiency’ is not a term that’s understood, so instead we began to talk about the signs and symptoms and how using Lucky Iron Fish could help alleviate things like fatigue and headaches and make people stronger.” As they worked to educate women, dispelling false myths such as if you’re menstruating in Cambodia you’re not supposed to eat meat, Lucky Iron Fish was more readily adopted.
And in the parts of the world where iron deficiency is most common, it’s most important that women are on board.
“In traditional communities like Cambodia or India, the head of the household is typically the matriarch, and she prepares every meal. When she uses Lucky Iron Fish, she is empowered, knowing she is having a direct and positive impact on her family’s well-being.”
Gavin is a deep believer that when you empower women, you’re empowering the future. “Women hold the key to the success of the future. Children are the next generation and they believe in and learn so much from their mothers. Especially in Cambodia and India, when the values of the household are situated around the mother, you see the power she has in influencing her children to make healthy choices as they grow.”
And it’s working. Quantitative clinical data revealed consistent use of Lucky Iron Fish resulted in healthier hemoglobin levels, and mothers reported less fainting, as well as associated physical and mental improvements in their children.
“Women hold the key to the success of the future. Children are the next generation and they believe in and learn so much from their mothers.”
But the work of dispelling taboos and myths associated with women’s health is not limited to developing nations. “Here in Canada, we shy away from talking directly about women’s health, which is a problem when the female body, especially during reproductive age, has an incredibly unique need for nutrients.” When it comes to women’s health, experience is needed to add depth to the conversation around innovation, and by taking women’s perspectives so closely into consideration, Lucky Iron Fish addresses a need in a way that may have otherwise gone overlooked.
“One of the best parts of Lucky Iron Fish is the buy one get one program, which draws a direct connection between the women in North America and the women in developing nations who are both benefiting from the exact same technology,” Gavin explains. Unlike programs that donate money after a Western consumer buys a product, creating a hierarchy of “saviour vs saved,” when you put this fish in your pot, someone around the world is doing the same, proving that in spite of the racial, geographical and cultural divides, iron is equally important to everyone. To date, 80,000 Lucky Iron Fish have been sold, and 80,000 fish have been given away for free.
In terms of career role models, Gavin has always looked up to leaders who’ve defied the odds or done things differently in the fields of business, society, and politics. “I believe in the outsider, and the idea that you don’t have to conform to be successful,” he says. “Look at Hillary Clinton. She is someone who persevered and turned that perseverance into something impactful.”
Gavin also wants to show how being financially successful and socially responsible are not mutually exclusive. “If I can prove through Lucky Iron Fish that social enterprises are profitable, sustainable, and effecting global change, I consider that a success.”
Learn more about the impact Lucky Iron Fish has had in developing communities, their awards and accolades, and how you can get your own.