INNOVATE

This Start-up is Solving a Worldwide Problem with a Simple Solution

There certainly is something fishy with this Cambodian start-up

Share on
BY Jared Carl Millan - 14 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency is among the biggest nutritional challenge today, and the ones that suffer the most are those who live in poor parts of the world.

“In developing countries every second pregnant woman and about 40% of preschool children are estimated to be anaemic,” WHO says. “The major health consequences include poor pregnancy outcome, impaired physical and cognitive development, increased risk of morbidity in children and reduced work productivity in adults. Anaemia contributes to 20% of all maternal deaths.”

It doesn’t stop there. Since 2000 iron deficiency rates globally have increased by 10%, and already there has been about $30 billion worth of spending used to combat it.

Dr. Christopher Charles saw first hand the insidious effects of iron deficiency in rural Cambodia during the time he spent living there for his research. People were so poor they couldn’t afford decent food and get proper nutrition. The women were tired and suffered chronic headaches. Pregnant women suffered from health complications before and during childbirth. Both children and teens were also affected by anemia due to iron deficiency.

The most widely used method to combat iron deficiency is by consuming iron supplements. But not only are they expensive, they also have a very low compliance rate due to their negative side effects.

Charles sought an alternative solution, and from his research he came up with an iron ingot that people could drop into their pots while cooking to leach elemental iron into their water and food.

It was a rough start. At first everyone was reluctant to use the piece of iron for their cooking. They then redesigned it into a shape of a lotus to make it more appealing, but to no avail.

It wasn’t until a discussion with the village elders that Charles discovered a fish species that symbolized luck, health, and happiness in local folklore. For a third time, they redesigned the ingots. This time, it came in the shape of a fish and the product finally took off. More important, in the areas where the fish ingots were distributed, the iron levels of the villagers improved, and the overall anemia reduced significantly in just 12 months.

This fish-shaped iron ingot will then go on to become the Lucky Iron Fish.

“I started working on the project in 2012 and realized this idea could have a profound global impact,” says Gavin Armstrong, founder and CEO of Lucky Iron Fish. “[I worked] with Chris to further the innovation, developed the ‘Lucky Iron Fish’ which we use today, and founded the company—Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise or LIFE.”

Staying true to their ethos of social welfare, the Lucky Iron Fish has a Buy-One-Give-One program. “For every fish we sell online we donate one for free to a family in need around the world,” Armstrong continues. “To date, we have helped improve the lives of over 500,000 people in [more than] 15 countries.”

The company’s first clinical trials began in Cambodia and the product was first distributed in the region, but now Lucky Iron Fish is available in 66 countries. Armstrong adds, “With support from the Saving Lives at Birth grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, [we] are conducting additional clinical trials in Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Bihar India, Pune India, and the UK.”

They have been partnering with various NGOs and non-profits across the globe to allocate Lucky Iron Fish where it is most needed, and they’re actively seeking the government’s help to further their cause.

As of the moment, their goal is to provide one million fish to one million families by 2020. “To do this, we will need to partner with large NGOs and governments, plus forward-thinking members of the private sector,” he says.

As far as their goals are concerned, it seems like they’re on the right track. Already, the venture has received international attention from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and the Clintons. They have also been included in the “Best for the World” category for their commitment to create and cultivate social impact and Armstrong became one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Asia in 2016.

For Armstrong, the best part about the whole journey is not the awards and recognition they’ve thus far received; it’s the individual stories from their consumers.

“Meeting someone at an airport who saw my Lucky Iron Fish and—not knowing I worked for the company—gushed about how they loved using theirs every day, and how they were never able to donate blood before, but now are healthy enough to give every three months,” Armstrong says. “The same is true whenever I visit communities in Southeast Asia and speak to mothers about how they love using their Lucky Iron Fish as they have more energy, and their kids and calmer and doing better in school. The quantitative data is really important for us but the individual stories are what keep us going.”