Case Study: How Lucky Iron Fish Got Down to Business

A Canadian banker-turned-benefactor is enriching diets in poor nations

Four years ago, Gavin Armstrong was studying commerce at the University of Guelph, eyeing a career in banking. Two things happened, however, that would change the course of the budding financier’s career. First, field study in rural Africa exposed him to abject poverty; and second, he heard about fellow student and epidemiologist Christopher Charles’s efforts in Cambodia to stem anemia, a chronic problem in developing nations. His eyes and mind wide open, Armstrong shifted from cash and capital to social entrepreneurship and, in the process, became enriched in ways he’d never imagined.

In Cambodia, Charles had discovered that nearly half of pregnant women and children were iron-deficient – a condition characterized by lethargy and dizziness, as well as slow physical and cognitive growth. Iron-rich foods, supplements and cast-iron pans were beyond the reach of the poorest, but a small block of iron was comparatively cheap and easy to source. Dropped into a pot of soup, that little block would provide 90% of the recommended daily iron intake for up to five years, but when he decided to test his theory with some local women, they thought he was nuts.

“It was basically asking people to put what looked like a piece of trash into their pot,” says Armstrong. “No one wanted to do it.” When he learned that a fish was the symbol of good luck, however, Charles reshaped that chunk of iron into a smiling fish, called it the Happy Fish, and the women were hooked. Within a year, anemia had dropped by half.

When Charles returned to Canada to resume medical studies, he handed over production to Armstrong. Charles had produced only a few hundred of the fish, but Armstrong wanted to upscale and commercialize the project. He changed the name to Lucky Iron Fish, assembled a team of eight and opened an office in Guelph, Ont. “We had to find a way to produce volumes in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of units,” he says, “so I followed the very traditional startup route of applying for grants and investments.”

After opening an online store and catching “some amazing media attention,” sales soared from 100 a month to 100 an hour. His goal: to sell a million fish by 2020. In the meantime, Armstrong has made Forbes 30 Under 30 List, and his company has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Atlantic and Maclean’s (as one of the top five Canadian designs making the world a better place). Lucky Iron Fish was twice recognized with a Commitment to Action award from the Clinton Global Initiative University (where he met the former U.S. president). Armstrong now travels the world giving talks and shaking famous hands.

Heady stuff for a guy originally focused on high finance. “[In Africa], I merged my two passions: wanting to make a difference but doing so in a sustainable way,” he says. “I got back to my business roots, and that’s where my social business was born.”