Cana­dian wins hu­man­i­tar­ian award

Burling­ton na­tive’s com­pany helped 500,000 peo­ple with iron de­fi­ciency around the world

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - ALINA BYKOVA

While vol­un­teer­ing at Kenya’s over­crowded Dadaab refugee camp in 2011, Gavin Arm­strong found him­self won­der­ing how to cre­ate long-term so­lu­tions to the world’s prob­lems.

He said he saw 700,000 peo­ple in a camp de­signed for 100,000, wit­ness­ing mal­nu­tri­tion and hu­man suf­fer­ing on such a large scale that it “gal­va­nized him,” and gave him the courage to start his com­pany, Lucky Iron Fish.

“We must ad­dress longer-term is­sues to cre­ate change, so that’s where I got re­ally en­er­gized around so­cial en­ter­prise,” he said.

So far, the com­pany has helped 500,000 peo­ple with iron de­fi­ciency around the world since it was launched in 2012.

Arm­strong’s fish is a re­us­able cast-iron gadget that can be boiled in wa­ter for 10 min­utes a day to give the user a low dose of iron. It can be used for up to five years and can ben­e­fit en­tire fam­i­lies.

This year, the 29-year-old Burling­ton na­tive was named one of the “Six Core Prin­ci­ple” re­cip­i­ents of the Muham­mad Ali Hu­man­i­tar­ian Award, given an­nu­ally to six hu­man­i­tar­i­ans un­der the age of 30. Arm­strong was also named one of Forbes’ Top 30 Un­der 30 in the so­cial en­trepreneur cat­e­gory, and won the EOY So­cial En­trepreneur spe­cial ci­ta­tion award.

“Iron de­fi­ciency is the world’s largest nu­tri­tional chal­lenge,” said Arm­strong, who works out of his of­fice in Guelph. “It im­pacts two bil­lion peo­ple, one-third of the world suf­fers from it.”

About 20 per cent of Cana­di­ans have iron de­fi­ciency, which is f airly low. But in some coun­tries, such as In­dia, 80 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion suf­fers from it. Low iron can lead to fa­tigue, hair loss and brit­tle nails, but it can also cause lim­ited cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment, low­ered kid­ney and liver func­tion, and death.

Kris­ten De­sau­tels has been us­ing the fish for about three years, since she got preg­nant with her daugh­ter, to im­prove her low en­ergy lev­els.

“Once I learned about it I thought it seemed like a great nat­u­ral way of get­ting some in­creased iron in­stead of get­ting sup­ple­ments,” said De­sau­tels, who now sells the gadget at her Guelph restau­rant.

So far, Arm­strong es­ti­mates that more than 100,000 iron fish have been sold around the world. The com­pany is now work­ing on sev­eral projects, in­clud­ing a part­ner­ship with the Sa­hara Foun­da­tion to help peo­ple with HIV in In­dia.

Peo­ple liv­ing with HIV can’t take iron sup­ple­ments, Arm­strong said, be­cause they clash with their med­i­ca­tion. By us­ing the Lucky Iron Fish in­stead, they are ex­posed to a lower and “more gen­tle dose” of iron which he says is man­age­able. Last year, they started a pro­gram to send the fish to Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in Canada, be­cause Indige­nous peo­ple have rates of iron de­fi­ciency two or three times higher than the av­er­age Cana­dian. So f ar, 5,000 fish have been sent through a buy­one-get-one ini­tia­tive. “For every fish we sell, we com­mit to do­nate one fish for free to a fam­ily around the world,” Arm­strong said. He is also hope­ful they will soon be able to part­ner with a United Na­tions agency to run a pi­lot project. “This is re­ally a women’s health is­sue,” he said, be­cause im­pov­er­ished women of re­pro­duc­tive age are more likely to be af­fected. Arm­strong be­lieves that com­pa­nies en­gaged in so­cial en­ter­prise, like Lucky Iron Fish, are the fu­ture of busi­ness. “I feel that there’s some­times a sense that hav­ing an im­pact or­ga­ni­za­tion is an added cost or an added bur­den and I don’t be­lieve that,” he said. “I’d like to use Lucky Iron Fish as an ex­am­ple that not only be­ing a so­cial busi­ness is not an added cost, it’s a rev­enue op­por­tu­nity.”

PHO­TOS BY JESSE WIN­TER, TORONTO STAR

Gavin Arm­strong cre­ated the Lucky Iron Fish to help fight iron de­fi­ciency in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries world­wide.

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