This Iron Fish Offers Relief From Anemia

How turning a chunk of unappetizing metal into the Lucky Iron Fish addressed an anemia epidemic in Cambodia.

[This project is an entrant in our Innovation By Design Awards. Stay tuned for the announcement of winners on October 10.]

Anemia, a condition of low red blood cells, is primarily caused by deficiency of iron. It’s a common condition, but it impedes daily routines by causing exhaustion and lack of focus, or sometimes more extreme lethargy, dizziness, or birth complications. And a piece of iron to cook with--in a charming and lucky silhouette--is offering relief.

An estimated 10% to 14% of the U.S. population is anemic, the majority of that population women and children. But in Cambodia, those numbers skyrocket: 44% of Cambodians suffer from anemia, including two-thirds of the country’s entire population of children. At the same time, about 70% of Cambodians live on less than $1 a day, pushing iron supplements (or red meat) far out of reach.

When Chris Charles, then a University of Guelph PhD student, traveled to Cambodia to tackle the problem, he had a crucial resource at hand: a study showing that simply adding iron to food while cooking could increase iron levels in the blood. But when he pitched the idea—essentially dropping a clunky, distasteful-looking block of iron into a skillet--Cambodian villagers were dubious.

A design flaw--this was an ugly piece of metal--kept Cambodian women from wanting to add it to the meals they were preparing for their families. “Actually almost no one used it,” says Gavin Armstrong, now CEO of the Lucky Iron Fish Project.

He and Charles conducted some boots-on-the-ground research, and eventually they arrived at the right connection: The fish is a Cambodian symbol of luck. “So the Lucky Iron Fish was born," Armstrong tells Co.Design.

Thus far, the Lucky Fish team has found that cooking with the fish leads to a 92% compliance rate, effectively curbing the effects of anemia. It’s an alarmingly simple solution that just needed a more attractive entry point--a problem that any product designer is familiar with. (Presumably, it’s why the Jawbone Up comes in crayon-like colors.)

“Rural families all recommended it to their friends and family to use the fish because they felt it was bringing them luck,” Armstrong says. “But in actuality it was bringing them health.”

Read more about The Lucky Iron Fish Project here.

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4 Comments

  • Margi Strobel

    Where can we buy this fish to use in Canada? Anemia is a significant problem here too!

  • T S

    This project exemplifies the importance of cultural competence in design. It is amazing the work that was done to establish this product and make it effective for the population of interest. What a great design and project!!