It’s not often you come across an idea that has the potential to solve a problem for two billion people.
Dr. Gavin Armstrong, the founder & CEO of Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise (LIFe) did just that. An impact entrepreneur, he has dedicated his life to helping solve the world’s largest nutritional challenge: iron deficiency. Over two billion people worldwide suffer from iron deficiency, which impacts everything from cognitive development in children to energy levels and overall health. Though anyone can suffer from this preventable condition, it mainly affects women and children.
Enter the Lucky Iron Fish and the Lucky Iron Leaf. These simple products provide people with a solution to naturally boost their daily iron intake. We had the chance to sit down with Dr. Armstrong to learn more about how he first learned about the idea and then grew it into the business it is today.
What you’re doing and how you’re making a vital cooking tool available at low cost is incredible. How did you come up with this concept?
It was actually part of my doctoral research. I worked with Dr. Christopher Charles who developed the initial concept (called the Happy Fish) in Cambodia. We wanted to find a way to help families boost their iron intake in a more affordable and natural way. Christopher was inspired by cast iron cookware but knew that we had to create something that was easier and more affordable to use. This is when the idea of creating an iron-based cooking tool first came to be. After testing many different versions, finally, the idea struck to design our product in the shape of a fish. The fish is a symbol of luck in Cambodian culture! This is how the Lucky Iron Fish came to be, and the proof was in the (iron-enriched) pudding because, after that redesign, we saw compliance rates of ~90%!
While Christopher continued his studies in medical school back in Canada, I worked to continue innovating the concept and ultimately commercialized it. The Lucky Iron Fish has been embraced by over 250,000 consumers in over 80 countries worldwide. The fish shape was working in most countries, but I hit some resistance in India. With a mostly vegetarian population, many people in India were hesitant to use our product (even though it is vegan certified). I took the same approach that we did with the Fish and developed the Lucky Shakti Leaf, which is shaped like a Tulsi leaf, a common plant in Indian households that has beneficial health properties.
How do you continue to evolve and ideate?
Our north star that helps us continuously evolve as a company is to tackle iron deficiency globally. I have set a goal for LIFe to be leaders in all things iron deficiency. This not only includes providing simple innovations to treat and prevent the problem but also supporting research initiatives and looking to expand into other areas as well. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women and girls, especially those living in poverty. New reports are suggesting that one of the most significant lasting impacts of the pandemic will be iron deficiency and malnutrition. We know if we can help solve this crisis we can save 800,000 children’s lives and put more than $110 billion back into the economy.
What exactly is impact entrepreneurship?
I believe that all businesses, large and small, have a responsibility in solving some of the world’s largest challenges. Impact entrepreneurs build on this philosophy and embed social, environmental, ethical, and measurable “impact” into their entire business model. It is not just the product or service that is helping our planet, but the entire way in which we do business. We see impact through our commitment to transparency, our hiring practises, our choice for product packaging, as well as with the health benefit of the Lucky Iron Fish.
We also take a portion of each sale and put it towards donating Fish for free to families in need both at home and abroad. I think it is important to set impact targets and hold ourselves accountable to ensure that we are actually doing what we set out to do. These targets have evolved as our business has grown, but our core commitment has remained the same: to improve global health using socially conscious business practices.
You’ve met Bill Clinton and had kudos from Oprah. Can you share your experience with that?
The story of the Lucky Iron Fish has received accolades from some incredible people all over the world. I was privileged to share the stage with Bill and Chelsea Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) event. Oprah included us in a list of her favourite things and said we were “off the hook” (we are known to enjoy a good fish-pun). Our product has also received numerous awards including multiple Canne Lions & Clio Awards. It is really amazing how this simple concept is quickly understood by anyone who learns about it.
You have been involved in many philanthropic projects, including work with World Vision, The United Way, the Canadian Gay Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and others. Tell us more about these projects.
Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise has had the opportunity to work with some remarkable organizations that are doing incredible work around the world. World Vision and Global Medic are two of our Canadian partners who are committed to improving the health of marginalized and underserved people globally. During my time at university, I was quite active in fundraising for various philanthropic causes including The BetterPlanet Project, The University of Guelph United Way Campaign, and Universities Fighting World Hunger. More recently I joined the board of the Canadian Gay Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC) to build a platform for diverse businesses across Canada. I am grateful to have been given a platform through LIFe and I feel compelled to use my voice and my experiences to help give back.
What’s next for you?
We continue to grow our e-commerce platform and have just launched sales in mainland China.
We’ve also listened to our customers (both individual consumers and larger NGOs) and from that feedback. I am hard at work developing a new product that will provide the same benefits as our Lucky Iron Fish and Leaf, but hopefully without the requirement for boiling it for 10 minutes. I am hopeful that this will launch in late 2021.
Lastly, I continue to be interested in the diagnostic space. I am also exploring some really exciting partnerships with cool, like-minded companies who are on a similar mission. Stay tuna’d for these (I wasn’t kidding about the puns).