The Tale of the Iron Fish


Anemia is a serious problem throughout the developing world and it has serious consequences for the health of women and children in particular.   After he graduated from the University of Guelph, in Canada, and while awaiting the start of his post-graduate studies, Chris Charles took a summer job in Cambodia.

Much of his work concentrated on was trying to persuade villagers to increase the amount of iron in their diet. Charles and his team tried to persuade the village women to cook in iron pots or put chunks of iron into their pots while cooking as the iron transferred into the food can help combat anaemia.  But the women refused – the pots were too heavy and the chunks of iron were – well, probably just too ugly.

Undaunted, Chris Charles and his team kept working on the problem. They tried all sorts of iron shapes to no avail until they hit on the idea of making a shape that looked like a local fish that was considered lucky.  This time it worked.  The women liked the 3-4 inch lucky fish and began to cook with it in their pots.

As it happens, the iron fish really was lucky, at least insofar as it brought health and well being to the villagers.  Within a short time the use of the iron fish helped anaemia levels to plummet.

This is an example not only of innovation but also learning to – figuratively – speak the language of the people with whom they were working.  When the development workers offered the iron fish in a way that could be understood by the locals, they heard what was being said and participated in the process of helping themselves.

Deceptively simple.

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Photograph – University of Guelph grad student Chris Charles with the iron fish that  women in Cambodian villages now put in their cooking pots to help raise the levels of iron in their bodies.