Lucky Iron Fish: A Simple Health Innovation Making an Impact on Cambodia

Interview by Thida Leiper

Meet Operations Manager Davuth Haem and Regional Manager Marianne Teoh of Lucky Iron Fish, a growing social enterprise combating a widespread global health problem. We sat down with them to learn more about how their innovative product works and how they are making a meaningful impact in Cambodia and across the world.

How and why was Lucky Iron Fish founded?

Davuth: At first it’s called Lucky iron fish project, it was started by a student named Christopher Charles from Guelph University (we call him Dr. Chris). He came to visit Cambodia and stayed in a village in Kandal province. He found that the women and children suffered from iron deficiency and after his research, he found out that half of the population was iron deficient.

Marianne: The way that the project developed was based on an ancient method of adding iron to food through iron cooking pots which has been used across the world. However, iron pots are heavy and expensive so people don't use them here. So he used the concept of an iron pot and used an iron ingot block. So he created a rectangular block of iron that released safe and effective amounts of iron. But nobody wanted to use this in their cooking pot. In fact, we found that people kept putting them under the table to support the leg!
Chris then learned through his research that the fish was a symbol of luck in Cambodia. So he shaped the iron ingot into a fish and people started to like using them properly.

How does one use a Lucky Iron Fish?

Davuth: There’s no specific way of using it. For me I used the fish just in boiling the water. After I learned from the villagers and partnered NGO’s that you can just boil the fish in a pot and then use the boiled drinking water with the fish for cooking soup and rice. Then I learned from partnered NGOs and villagers that this was a good idea. In the box we have a manual which tells you how to use the fish. So the first time we met the villagers and partnered NGOs, we explain according to the manual how to use the fish.

Marianne: We’ve kept the manual extremely simple and graphic in case of illiteracy in the population that we work with. The key factors are that the fish can be used everyday in a real simple way. You just pop it in a pot, boil for 10 minutes with a few drops of citrus and this releases about 7 milligrams of iron into the food which is the safe, effective and clinically tested amount of iron that can be absorbed by the body.

How long does it last for?

Marianne: 5 years. One of the cool things about the Lucky Iron Fish is the way that it's been engineered. The body has a rounded design so that it rocks at the bottom of the pot and focuses the movement on a large surface area for more effective iron release. The smile of the fish also serves a special purpose. It’s the indicator for the lifespan of the fish. Once the smile is gone, which is 5 years of everyday use, it means that it’s time to stop using the fish. So that's a really great way to communicate to people from all around the world how long they can use their fish for.

Davuth: We train the villagers how to take care of the fish so that it won’t turn rusty. After use, we tell them to cool down in cold water and wash with soap or washing detergent to remove the salt and oil. After rinsing in clean water, they must dry it immediately so that it won’t rust and we also tell them to put it away in a box and keep it away from children so that they don’t try to play with it as a toy! Our manual explains this too.

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How does the LIF business model work?

Marianne: The company itself as a social enterprise has an interesting background. The social side of LIF asks the question “How do we tackle a widespread global health problem in a meaningful way?” and the enterprise side we asked “How do we scale up a health innovation in a way that can help people that are actually in need?” So what we do is sell the fish in the western market (currently in the US and Canada) and for every fish that someone buys, one gets donated free of charge to a family in need. Right now we’ve been distributing that in Cambodia and also in other countries around the world. So this is how we keep a sustainable for profit business that actually has meaningful impact. We’re finding really great progress from the past sales, it’s really taking up and we’ve been able to distribute about 70,000 fish around the world to people in need.

What is LIF doing to make sure that you are making a meaningful impact?

Marianne: We’ve partnered with NGOs that have identified a need for this health innovation in the communities that they work with and we make sure that they have the capacity to deliver workshops for the people in their communities in a meaningful way so that we act as a program and not just a business distributing fish. So the heart of the program has really been a big collaboration with the NGOs’ health care institutes, aid organizations and village chiefs that we have worked with.

Davuth: In the beginning, our project was very small, we didn’t have the money to broadcast on TV which made it hard to gain villagers trust. We had a sales team which would go to the villages doing door-to-door sales and we did wet market shows. At first people that came to watch our wet market show didn’t really engage with LIF (only 5 people bought the fish). Not all of the village chiefs believed in the product since it’s a new concept. But some did strongly believe in it because they learned from their grandparents that when a family member had pale skin, they could put some nails bounded together in a bowl or coconut shell with water and get the patient to drink from it and it worked. So the village chiefs that believed this allowed us to continue with our sales and helped us in explaining LIF to villages.

Marianne: We quickly learned that getting the trust has to come from within which is why we don't do door-to-door sales anymore and instead partner with other organizations who already have that integration with the community and have identified the need. So our role is to pass on all the information we can about the Lucky Iron Fish and use it as a way to encourage people to start talking about general health and nutrition in rural communities. We also have our training of trainers model which Davuth leads. When we partner with an organization, he will train local community health providers and community workers how to deliver the workshops and so they can then continue that training. This type of model makes sense when you have a small team like ours.

What brought you to join the Impact Hub Community?

Marianne: I found out about Impact Hub through working through Development Innovations. Impact Hub completely fits in with the way LIF works in terms in that it is a social enterprise working to making a connection in Cambodia. It’s a community of people that you can network with and also learn from. Just being surrounded by people with exciting project and ideas that are driving Cambodia forward is just something that we wanted to be a part of. We’re really keen to get involved with the workshops and talks to help us learn how to make the biggest impact that we can and develop as individuals as well.

Davuth: I just joined a week ago. It’s a great place. It’s quiet and I like a peaceful place to work in!