PARADOX OF INDUSTRIALISATION: Not enough salt production in South Africa


Despite ranking as a newly industrialised nation, South Africa still battles to meet its own demand for salt - a most concerning irony considering that salt production also reflects a country’s level of economic growth.

Currently, less than 50% - about 441 000 tonnes in 2011, according to the Department of Mineral Resources, of our salt consumption requirements, is produced locally, leaving industry - where salt has over 14 000 uses, vulnerable.

“60% of all 200 million tonnes of current worldwide salt production is used for industry (leather and hides industry, fish industry, food industry, textile industry, petrochemical industry, agriculture industry, medical industry, the list goes on)... only 5% of salt produced actually ends up on our tables…,” described Bennie Bekker, Marketing Director of Marina Sea Salt which has grown from a small family business to a leading national salt supplier in South Africa.

From 2004, when salt exports were suspended, cheaper salt ash imports from Namibia and Botswana have left the country unable to capitalise on new opportunities.

Global demand for salt, stimulated by China, was expected to rise by 3.3% annually to 290 million tonnes by 2015, according to a Merchant Research & Consulting, Ltd. report in 2011.

Is salt the missing ingredient in growing the Eastern Cape economy?

Whereas the country’s Karoo salt pans are very limited in resources, the province’s shoreline provides wide access to an inexhaustible sea salt resource – seawater, as well as coastal salt pans which often occur about 25km from the seashore.

“The climate in Port Elizabeth is also very conducive for salt making,” adds Bekker, whose company employs around 200 people and with competitor, Cerebos, have made PE the country’s major source for sea salt.

A number of small-scale miners, mostly cooperatives, also operate in the region.

Still, sea-derived salt accounts for only about 20% of local production. This is partly because Marina Sea Salt makes salt the traditional way via evaporation pans and bulk harvesting – thus, there is a long waiting period of up to 24 months before they actually dispatch the large harvesting machines into the pan to start the harvesting process, described Bekker, adding that weather also played a critical role in the whole process.

“We are salt farmers who are fully reliant on God. If it rains too much, our crops are dissolved and we have to start the process all over again.”

Unlike inland saltpans, sea salt production is also capital-intensive and needs a five-year lead time before production is actually achieved.

Thus, interventions are urgently needed for the local salt industry and the Eastern Cape Province to respond to the increasing global demand. Expansion of current operations, establishment of new projects and mainstreaming small-scale salt miners to exploit reserves inland and along the coast, could be the answer.

Cereboshas shown the way by opening a 45 000 tonnes-per-year facility in the Coega Industrial Development Zone.

And it is not about just the Provincial economy. Local communities, among some of the countries poorest, can also benefit from these salt pans and their operations as already shown by Marina Sea Salt.

With a long-term lease agreement with the Bethelsdorp Salt Pans Board on the Swartkops salt pan – believed to be amongst the first salt pans in South Africa, the company currently runs several community development projects including a Poverty Alleviation Programme where it assists about ten soup kitchens in the greater Port Elizabeth area. These soup kitchens feed approximately 2 000 people on any given day.

Through a Youth Development project, Marina Sea Salt also supports the Walmer Football Association as well as the New Brighton and the Zwide Football Associations. Thus, over 36 local community soccer clubs are benefitting from the company’s assistance.

There are already several economic products like mohair, citrus and tourism that sustain the Eastern Cape and adding salt to the recipe could help the provincial economy fully exploit new global opportunities.

At high school, we learnt that salt was one of the factors for the growth of the Roman Empire and that words for ‘salary’ and ‘salad’ are derived from the word for ‘salt’. Salt could still be a fundamental element to modern trade.