How one man and thousands of fish are helping improve women’s health worldwide

Gavin Armstrong in India

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.

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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.

Gavin Armstrong in IndiaWith 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. Gavin with woman in IndiaWhen 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.

An Open Letter to Our Men

man in front of train

By Teresa Harris


To my brothers, my father, and my friends. To all of the men I love and have loved in my life, I ask you this: please listen, and please learn.

Listen to the message this election has so clearly announced about what our neighbours — and what we can assume many within our own borders — think of powerful females. Hear the words “nasty woman” and “Miss Piggy” and understand where they are coming from. Feel the weight of the fact that the source is America’s 45th President-elect.

Learn that although your intentions may be good, your actions matter. Your words matter. Your legacy — the impression you leave on the countless young boys who will grow into the men of our future — is one of the most important responsibilities you’ll have in your lifetime, and right now the climate is ripe for that legacy to be tainted.

We love you so deeply and wholly that it breaks our hearts to know you, the good and decent ones, have this letter to bear. I ask you to be brave in this time of hostility and confusion and exercise your power for change among your peers. It is critical that you do so.

That is what I ask of you today.

Here is what I do not ask of you.

I do not ask you to rally underneath the women you love and respect in an effort to lift us. I do not ask you to stand in front of us to shield us from the cruel reality we’ve suddenly realized our world represents. We are not frail, and even well-intentioned offerings of protective strength in reality are benevolent insults to our capabilities.

What we need is for your voices to be quiet at times when ours should be heard. We need you to look at us when our faces should be seen. We need you to stand beside us when our numbers are low. We need you to exist not as our scaffolding or our armour, but as our allies.

There has been an assumption in recent time that led us to believe a woman’s work is done. What we’ve realized is that the work of this generation of women is far from complete, and that no level of qualification or sum of money can do that work for us. That has never been made clearer than in the past 24 hours.

And despite your loving intent, you cannot do it for us either. But you can do it with us. You can and you should and you will, because the future of our humanity depends on it. So please listen, and please learn.

 

 

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