It is 10:30 AM on a Friday when we arrive at Katwe salt lake in Kasese District, western Uganda. A pungent smell rents the air. “That is hydrogen sulfide,” a guide quickly notes, “It is a gas that occurs naturally in the lake where the rock salt is extracted and in those hundreds of ponds we call saltpans that surround the lake and where other forms of salt are formed.”
Kids, men and women who work here do not appear to mind the smell at all.
Apparently, after working here for a longtime, it kills their sense of smell.
Offshore, men can be seen pushing what appears like make-shift wooden boats carrying bulky black and white rocks—rock salt— towards the shore. The miners have a regulatory system. It is only licensed individuals, who are licenced by the Lake Katwe Association for Rock Salt Extraction, who are allowed to carry out mining from the salt lake.
When these rocks hit the shore, others whisk them off and pile them up for them to dry up and get ready to be shipped off to the market. Usually, the piles are not as many as can be seen today.
Nuriat Businge, one of the few women that buys the rock salt from men and sells it to other buyers says the market has taken a dip. “Ever since the Rwandan border was closed, we are cut off. Most of the times, the salt would go to Rwanda,” Businge says.
According to data from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), on average Uganda has been exporting goods worth $20 million to Rwanda per month but these had since fallen to a paltry $600,000 by April following Rwanda’s closure
of its borders and blockade against Ugandan goods. Worsening Geo-political tensions between the two countries have occasioned the blockade.
Katwe salt miners have also taken a hit as a result of this blockade. To address the challenge, Businge says that government should be helping with access to factories so that Katwe salt can get a market.
“We do not have gardens,” she says, “The lake salt is our garden.” Soils here do not favour agriculture; salt mining is the major economic source of livelihood.
“When we sell our salt,” Businge adds, “we get food, school fees and those without houses are able to rent. The government should get us a market to sell our salt.”
Away from the rock salt, which forms in the lake, on shore, women can be seen in several of the hundreds of ponds also known as saltpans. Salt brine naturally forms in these pans. They are man-made ponds of about 10 feet width and 5 feet depth, demarcated in plots on the shores of the lake are owned by private individuals or families.
69 year-old Archangel Rwecungura says he inherited his pans from his parents, who also inherited them from their parents.
“I have already passed some to my children,” he says, “This is our first source of income. It is what we are relying on for everything from studying, eating, building, and our entire development. We request that if it is possible, government increases efforts and purifies the quality of our salt so that we can also get better incomes.”
Government is already planning to revive the Katwe salt factory, which was in the 1970s, established by Uganda Development Corporation (UDC) to process the salt brine. Its construction was interrupted by the wars at the time before it was completed in 1982. Unfortunately, the factory only operated for less than a year and closed when the salt corroded the machinery.
Located a few metres from the lake, today the factory is only host to rats and bats as the country imports salt. But that might not be the case for long especially if the plans by the Uganda Development Bank (UDB) come to fruition.
“We are doing a feasibility study of revamping the factory and if we find that it is a viable activity, then we write a proposal,”says Mohamud Andama, the UDB director for investment, “With this we can get a potential funder (for reviving the factory).”
Already yearning for a more steady market, the salt miners are excited about this prospect.
“There is no doubt reviving the factory is the step in the right direction,” says Nicholas Kagongo, one of the salt extractors, “however, once the investors come, they should not come to the lake to compete with the extractors. They should buy from the extractors and then process. That could be better.”
Africa Centre for Energy and Mineral Policy (ACEMP)