Activist and entrepreneur Dr. Gavin Armstrong is the founder and President of Lucky Iron Fish, which is devoted to combating iron deficiency around the globe using a simple innovation: a reusable cast-iron fish that can be boiled with food to infuse it with iron. An advocate against hunger and malnutrition, Armstrong is the first Canadian to receive the William J. Clinton Award for international work against hunger, and he is also the inaugural recipient of the Michaëlle Jean Emergency Hunger Relief Award. He was awarded the Forbes magazine “30 Under 30” award in the Social Entrepreneur category in 2016, and in 2017 received the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award. He spoke with The Edge in a previous issue, and this is part of that interview.
What inspired you to get involved with humanitarian work?
I used to want to be a banker because in high school, I was actually bullied, quite seriously. And for some reason, I thought if I became a banker, I could make a lot of money and I could prove the bullies wrong. But my first year of university I was miserable, and I realized that wasn’t the right path for me. I took a chance trip and went to Botswana in Southern Africa for a field course where we did some ecotourism work. It was my first time leaving North America. It was a great trip, but it was my first time seeing abject poverty and need up close. And when I came back from that trip, I realized I was on such a selfish trajectory, to prove someone wrong who I’ll probably never see again. That’s when I did a 180 and I focused more on how businesses can help with CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiatives and philanthropic work, and became very engaged in hunger and malnutrition issues.
What does being a “social entrepreneur” mean to you?
It means to take a business and try to solve world challenges. It doesn’t matter what the business is, or what your entrepreneurial endeavour is; it’s taking a business model and having that model be a solution for global problems.
Do you have any advice for other business leaders looking for ways to give back to the world?
It seems very daunting when you look at issues like world hunger, for example. Almost a billion people. You think, “Well, how can I make a difference?” But it’s really important to remember the power of one. One person can actually do something that will have a ripple effect that will cause change. Look at all the other changemakers out there that started an action and that snowballed into a variety of movements. To take some perspective, yes, the problems seem daunting, but you have the power to make a change because there is power in the power of one.
How did you come up with the idea – and the name – for Lucky Iron Fish?
Lucky Iron Fish started as a research project at the University of Guelph. I was working with another student named Chris Charles. We came up with something called Happy Fish. We did our clinical work. He went on to med school and I further innovated the product. I incorporated it as Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise because I wanted the company to have global reach on global health issues. Also, I didn’t just come up with random names. In Cambodia, where we started, the fish is a symbol of luck. We were actually using iron disks and people were saying that looks like a piece of garbage, I’m not putting trash in my food. But after some research we discovered the symbol of the fish was the symbol of luck in those communities, and if the head of the household put a fish in the pot, they would be lucky. And if they felt healthier, they thought that was the luck of the fish. So that’s where the name came from.
You’re from Ontario, and you moved production of Lucky Iron Fish to Bowmanville with the aim of creating local jobs, at a time when many companies are looking to move offshore to save money. Do you think other businesses should do the same and try to keep jobs in their local communities?
That’s a good question, and with Lucky Iron Fish, we tried to have a social impact throughout the supply chain. So, it’s not just the fish itself, but it’s how we get the fish out there. We have to produce the fish where we can secure safe and high-quality sources of iron. If that moves away from our current production facility, we’ll want to have packaging and other aspects produced here. We are a global company and we also have to be mindful of our environmental footprint. So I’m more inclined to have small production hubs creating jobs in all the communities we’re working in, versus creating just one hub for it. We’re also looking at costs and things like that, but ultimately, I feel that your impact should be in a variety of ways, not just a few, like production or distribution.
As a CEO, do you ever find it difficult to reconcile the needs of running a successful business with the drive to do good and help people?
That’s one of the tensions lots of social entrepreneurs face. I definitely face it where we have shareholders, stakeholders to consider. I have staff I have to pay at the end of the day. And so the margins are important, the bottom line is important, but we want to make a difference by the social threshold of what we’re doing. A good example is our packaging. We use environmentally sustainable packaging, it’s made from recycled cardboard with vegetable-dyed ink. If we were to use, say, plastic packaging, it would be way cheaper, but I would be concerned about the environmental footprint. So, what I try to do is understand the desire of the market. I think consumers want to see packaging that has environmental logos on it. I actually think being cheap and using plastic packages will actually hurt the brand and will actually hurt sales. I don’t consider social costs as a cost, but I consider them an investment.
What do you think Canada’s legacy is in the world when it comes to humanitarian work and helping those less fortunate?
I have the privilege of going internationally and telling our story. What I’m finding right now is there is a serious global conversation about women’s health and women’s rights. There are a lot of funding challenges that are being seen from a variety of political factors, mainly south of the border, that is being truly felt globally. Canada’s new feminist-led development agenda is really being seen as a beacon, a standard that other governments should follow. When I participate in government meetings, I get more attention and more access to people because we are seen as powerful players in the humanitarian field because of this feminist-led agenda. I think that will be our legacy for a very long time.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Our company has a “Buy-One-Give-One” program, where for every purchase of a Lucky Iron Fish in North America from our website, we donate a fish to a family in need, free of cost, around the world.
Laurette Kabongo/Shirley Graham | Contributing Writers