Lucky Iron Fish – tackling iron deficiency in Cambodia

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Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world and a major cause of anaemia, which results in everything from fatigue and dizziness to impaired immune function.

Following fieldwork in Cambodia, Canadian epidemiologist Chris Charles discovered that placing a small piece of iron into an aluminium pot while cooking could release sufficient iron to provide up to 75% of people’s recommended daily intake. The simple solution provides an alternative to iron-rich foods and supplements, which are often not available in poor areas or too expensive.

“No one wanted to cook with this ugly piece of iron, though,” says Gavin Armstrong, chief executive of Lucky Iron Fish, a small healthcare company. By shaping the iron like a fish it became linked to traditional associations of luck and prosperity.

Proving the health benefits is key to encouraging uptake, says Armstrong. Lucky Iron Fish is currently in clinical trials but initial results show a 50% drop in iron deficiency after a year of cooking with the iron fish. Although the research also brings up challenges around the long term effectiveness of the fish and difficulties in getting people to change their cooking behaviour.

To help scale up the solution, the organisation switched from charity status to become a social enterprise in 2012. Lucky Iron Fish’s primary clients are development agencies operating in Cambodia. Bought in bulk, the iron fish cost between $5-$8 (£3.20-£5.13) and last for five years, a major reduction on the $30 per person per year that health charities typically spend providing iron supplements.

In 2012-2013, the company raised C$1.3m (£662,000) in equity funding, thanks in large part to a matched grant of C$500,000 (£255,000) from the government-backed healthcare funder Grand Challenges Canada. Armstrong plans a second round of financing within the next year to fund an expansion into other south-east Asian markets.