To the salt flats of Senegal for a buoyant business idea

Salt Queen’s micro-enterprise produces four to five tonnes of product a day in peak season

Nearly 19 million babies born globally every year are at risk of permanent yet preventable brain damage and reduced cognitive function due to a lack of iodine in the earliest years of life, according to a report published this year by Unicef and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, a Geneva-based NGO.

Senegal is the largest salt producer in west Africa, harvesting almost half a million tonnes every year.

Small-scale harvesters, who work in areas such as Lake Retba and Fatick, are responsible for about one-third of production.

However, many producers fail to iodise the salt. Nutrition International, a Canadian-based NGO that works to eliminate mineral and vitamin deficiencies in developing countries, organises co-operatives and provides harvesters with iodisation machines and training.

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The salt harvesters spend between six and eight hours a day in the water. Every morning, they rub on beurre de karité – butter made from shea nuts, found in west Africa – to protect their skin from the salt water.

Technique

The men dig salt from the lake bed and place it in a basket. They use the buoyancy of the lake to lift the heavy basket to the surface and then pour the salt into a boat. Each man collects 1-1.5 tonnes of salt every day (depending on the time of year).

In the salt plains of Fatick, Marie Diouf – aka the Salt Queen – uses a different extraction technique. Salt water is pumped out of the nearby lake and evaporates on the land.

When the government started to privatise land in the area, Diouf was one of the first to invest in a plot. Now, she employs 12 women and a number of men in her own micro-enterprise, producing about four to five tonnes of salt daily in peak season. Nutrition International provides the iodisation machine, the potassium iodate and training to the co-operative.

Marie's husband, who had left to search for work in Dakar, has now returned to the village to help her run the business. The salt plains provide valuable employment for young men who otherwise have little in terms of livelihood.

By iodising salt, I can give children throughout Africa the best head-start in life

The salt iodisation machine mixes potassium iodate into the salt. For an adult, the recommended daily intake of iodine is 150 microgrammes a day, according to the World Health Organisation.

Lack of iodine results in an underactive thyroid and can lead to visible diseases such as goitre, but more importantly it leads to mental impairment in new-born children if not consumed during pregnancy.

At present 47 per cent of edible salt in Senegal is iodised and Nutrition International wants to see that increased to 90 per cent, a level known as Universal Salt Iodisation.

To date, Nigeria is the only African nation to have been given USI status by the UN. The newly iodised salt is not only a health benefit but also increases the sale value of each tonne of salt from 22,000 Central African francs (€33) to 32,000 CFA.

Women need iodine in their diet, especially during the first few months of pregnancy. Often, by the time salt supplements are handed out to pregnant women, it’s too late to make any significant impact. Integrating iodine into the diet would ensure that the recommended daily amounts are sustained throughout pregnancy.

Marie Diouf sees herself as a key player in the fight against “hidden hunger”.

"Iodine is fundamental in the mental development of the foetus," she says. "By iodising salt, I can give children throughout Africa the best head-start in life."

Marie used to harvest salt from a commonly-owned salt flat. She and a few other women would work together but their salt was not iodised and was of very poor quality, earning them very little money and putting newborns at risk of iodine deficiency disorders. Now, she confirms, “they call me the Queen of Iodised Salt”.

Training

Fatick is one of the largest salt harvesting areas in Senegal, and it’s here that Nutrition International has been concentrating its efforts in improving iodisation. Producers here, such as Marie, are typically small scale and don’t have access to larger markets across West Africa.

As Marie's business has grown, she has shared her experiences with students at local schools

Nutrition International’s approach to iodisation here has been to encourage the creation of Groups d’Interet Economique or GIEs. Small processors join together to share costs and increase market share. Included is support for iodisation, as well as a revolving loan fund to enable them to buy potassium iodate.

Marie received training on improved salt harvesting techniques and worked with the Canadian NGO to develop a business plan so she could buy a salt flat herself.

As part of Nutrition International's South-to-South training project, she travelled with a group of salt producers to Ghana to learn improved business models from salt processors there.

As Marie’s business has grown, she has shared her experiences with students at local schools, demonstrating that there’s a good living to be made close to home.

Iodine is an essential nutrient for foetal brain development, and a failure to recognise and act on this is not only a developing world problem. Studies across the UK have shown that high numbers of expectant mothers suffer from a deficiency of it, according to the UK Iodine Group, which was established in June 2012 with the aim of ensuring that iodine deficiency is eradicated in the UK.