Roughly half of the world’s population is iron deficient, which can result in fatigue, dizziness and impaired cognitive ability. Iron deficiency is also the leading cause of anemia, a condition in which the body’s oxygen-carrying capacity is insufficient to adequately meet a person’s physiologic needs. While anemia can usually be treated with iron-rich foods like red meat or nutritional supplement pills, these items are far too costly for the average global household. Thanks to The Lucky Iron Fish Project, meeting daily iron requirements is now easy, affordable and a source of good luck.
The Lucky Iron Fish Project is a social entrepreneurship organization that aims to reduce iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia, specifically among women and children in Cambodia. The project is centred on a simple innovation: a small fish-shaped block of iron that families can use while preparing food or sterilizing water. When placed in a cooking pot and boiled, the palm-sized fish emits enough iron to meet 75 percent of an individual’s daily requirements and increase the body’s stores. Since being piloted in a rural Cambodian village, the Lucky Iron Fish has significantly reduced the prevalence of iron deficiency and halved the incidence of clinical anemia.
There are several key factors that make the Lucky Iron Fish an important health innovation. First, it is cost-effective. The fish can be easily produced by local workers from scrap metal for $1.50 a piece and can be used for up to three years.
Second, the Lucky Iron Fish works within the Cambodian cultural context. In Cambodia, the iron deficiency situation is particularly bad; nearly half of the total population and two-thirds of the country’s children suffer from anemia. In the past, women have rejected iron cooking pots because they are heavier and more expensive. When the project’s creator, University of Guelph graduate student Christopher Charles, first tried to introduce blocks of iron to be placed in pots as an alternative, the community rejected the product entirely. After extensive research and a few failed attempts at different shapes, Charles landed on an effective and culturally meaningful shape, the fish. The local river fish is a symbol of good luck in Cambodia and, as a result, was quickly adopted by women in the pilot village.
It is a simple, effective product that can easily be replicated in Asia and most regions of the world. The Lucky Iron Fish Project also demonstrates the importance of social marketing; just because a product is effective, does not mean it will be used, particularly if it doesn’t take cultural values and practices into account.