Little fish solves big problem

Friday 5th June, 2015


The Little Iron Fish Project fights iron deficit and anemia in Cambodia and developing countries.

The global problem of iron deficiency

Iron is present in every cell of the human body and carries out vital functions such as transporting oxygen to the tissues. Yet iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency on the planet.  In Britain alone, 15.2 per cent of the population is anaemic. It can lead to a series of health issues including exhaustion, a weakened immune system, impaired cognitive ability and heart and lung problems.

In Britain alone, 15.2 per cent of the population is anaemic. 

“Symptoms of anaemia can be so mild that you hardly notice them. But if you are chronically anaemic, it can have some really devastating effects on your health long term,” says Dr  Andrew Roberts, a vascular surgeon practicing in the US.  “It is estimated that 25 per cent of the world’s population is anaemic. But there are areas of the world that are more highly impacted than others, simply because they have very real issues with food security across the board.”

A significant problem for developing countries

Cambodia, for example, has long struggled with nutritional deficiency issues. The population’s limited access to affordable nutritious food, as well as some prevalent genetic anomalies (such as hemoglobin disorders), contribute significantly to these problems. According to a 2012 research paper by Dr Christopher Charles, 55 per cent of children, 43 per cent of women of reproductive age and 50 per cent of pregnant women are anaemic in Cambodia.

The Lucky Iron Fish designed by Gavin Armstrong. Photo: Summerlee Photography

A small fish takes on a big problem

Upstart spoke with Gavin Armstrong, the president of Canadian not-for-profit organisation The Lucky Iron Fish, about their work to correct this issue. The Lucky Iron Fish project was developed to pinpoint the particular issues Cambodia faces when tackling the problem of iron deficiency. Their proposed solution: a small iron fish that can be used in daily cooking. It releases up to 75 per cent of a family’s daily iron requirements when placed in boiling water for 10 minutes. These fish can then be reused for up to five years.

The small iron fish has been distributed to Cambodian families for the past nine months.

“The concept behind the Lucky Iron Fish was designed by Dr Chris Charles. He invented the ‘Happy Fish’,” explains Armstrong.  “Building off his research, I designed the ‘Lucky Iron Fish’ that we use today.”

The small iron fish has been distributed to Cambodian families for the past nine months. The families that have been using it have seen a 50 per cent decrease in clinical iron deficiency anaemia.

“Iron Deficiency is caused primarily due to a lack of iron in the diet. Those living in poverty have a lack of access to nutritious foods. In Cambodia, the primary staple of the diet is white rice, which is not very nutritious,” says Armstrong. “This is why we are continuing our researching efforts in Cambodia--to better understand the situation of iron deficiency in the region.”

Photo: Summerlee Photography

The fish is born

During initial research it was clear that conventional methods of combating iron deficiency used in the developed world (eating red meat or legumes, using iron cookware, taking iron supplements) would be prohibitively expensive for most at-risk Cambodian families that live on less than $1 (£0.65) a day.

The idea of providing a small iron disk to be used in cooking, like the current iron fish, was proposed as a cost-effective option, but Cambodian women were reluctant to use it. An iron lotus flower was then proposed but was met with equal reluctance by Cambodian communities.

It was only through discussions with village elders that the idea for a fish-shaped iron ingot came into being. Fish are symbols of good luck, happiness and health in Cambodian folklore. So the iron fish was born and was well-received by Cambodian communities. All that remained to be resolved was the process of distributing them to at-risk and rural communities.

Photo: Summerlee Photography

“We do have staff in Cambodia but we primarily sell in bulk to NGOs that then distribute them to communities with our help,” explains Armstrong. “We also have a programme where if you purchase a fish online, we will donate one to a hospital in Cambodia.”

Future plans for the fish to go global

The Lucky Iron Fish plans to expand beyond Cambodia to other at-risk countries and communities around the globe. In light of the effect that a culturally-relevant symbol can have on the use of such a product, will the fish be morphing into other creatures and symbols?

“Initial research shows that a fish is lucky in many cultures and religions,” says Armstrong.   “We plan to stick with the fish for now, but are open to adapting it in the future.”