Iron deficiency is one of the most common global nutrition problems, affecting some 3.5 billion people, or nearly half the world’s population. Of those, around 2 billion have full-blown iron deficiency anemia, meaning the levels of iron in their blood are low enough to cause serious symptoms. These range from dizziness and fatigue to cognitive impairment and infections. In the worst cases, the condition can even lead to death. Iron deficiency is responsible for about 841,000 deaths a year.
In the developed world, eating iron-rich foods, such as meat, eggs and leafy greens, or taking an iron supplement can solve the problem. But for many in the developing world, iron deficiency anemia remains a stubborn problem.
Now, a Canadian company is offering a novel, low-tech solution. They’re distributing fish-shaped iron ingots to rural Cambodian households with the instructions to place the fish in their cooking pots while preparing meals. The iron from the fish leaches into the food and raises iron levels in the blood.
“Our product is sustainable, will benefit the entire family and can last for 5 years,” says Gavin Armstrong, president and CEO of Lucky Iron Fish.
Canadian physician Christopher Charles wondered if women could be persuaded to cook with a lump of iron in their cooking pots. While researching in Cambodia, where nearly two-thirds of women and children are iron deficient, he tested his hypothesis. Unfortunately, women simply used the iron lumps as doorstops. So Charles had the iron lumps molded into the shape of the try kantrop, a fish considered lucky in Cambodian culture. Use of the “lucky iron fish” skyrocketed. Charles is now a member of Lucky Iron Fish's board of directors.
Two subsequent studies have shown that the iron fish raises blood iron levels and increases wellbeing, at least in the short term. Some 90 percent of test subjects used the fish regularly, and blood tests showed they were more than ten times as likely to have normal blood iron levels as a control group. Last month, the fish won the Product Design Grand Prix at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, an award ceremony for advertising, innovation and creative marketing.
Cooks place the fish in stew pots or in drinking water being boiled for sterilization. Since iron uptake is enhanced by ascorbic acid (a form of vitamin C), cooks must add citrus juice. Many Cambodian dishes already contain lime or other citrus, so this is not much of a change for home cooks.
Previous studies had looked at the effect of distributing iron cooking pots, which have the same iron-leeching effect as the fish. But iron pots are heavy and prone to rust, and many home cooks reject them in favor of their familiar aluminum.
The lucky iron fish is an example of a low-tech innovation for a persistent public health problem. These sort of creative solutions are increasingly recognized as having the potential to make a huge impact.
The Kit Yamoyo (“Kit of Life” in several African languages), for instance, is a plastic pack containing oral rehydration salts and other anti-diarrheal supplies cleverly designed to fit inside a Coca-Cola crate, to take advantage of Coca-Cola's distribution chain—wherever Coke would go, so would the Kit Yamoyo. Though it has been largely abandoned in favor of a more conventional screw-top bottle design, the original design won the Design Museum’s Product of the Year Award in 2013. There’s also the Life Saving Dot, a bindi (the forehead dot worn by women in many parts of South Asia) impregnated with iodine, designed to combat an iodine deficiency that can lead to thyroid problems and cognitive issues. About 350 million Indians are considered to be at risk for iodine deficiency.
Lucky Iron Fish is a certified B Corp, meaning it meets high standards among companies with social missions. Funded by a mix of philanthropy, grants and private equity, it sells the iron fish online. Twenty-five dollars either buys a “school” of five fish to be distributed to Cambodian families, or one for you and another for a family in Cambodia. They also sell directly to NGOs and aid agencies. The company is hoping to partner with people interested in bringing the iron fish to other communities across the world.
“It is our goal to put a fish in every pot of those who need one,” Armstrong says. “We are planning to scale up in Southeast Asia and other regions around the world that need help the most.”