News / Africa

Change Looms for Ethiopia's Ancient Salt Trade

A worker extracts salt from the desert in the Danakil Depression, northern Ethiopia, April 22, 2013.
A worker extracts salt from the desert in the Danakil Depression, northern Ethiopia, April 22, 2013.
Reuters
Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed was 15 years old when he began trekking with caravans of camels to collect salt in a sun-blasted desert basin of north Ethiopia that is one of the hottest places on earth.
 
Now 51 and retired, he has passed his camels to his son to pursue this centuries-old trade in "white gold" from the Danakil Depression, where rain almost never falls and the average temperature is 94 degrees Fahrenheit (34.4 Celsius).
 
Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed, a retired salt merchant, poses for a photograph close to his home in the town of Berahile in Afar, northern Ethiopia, April 20, 2013.Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed, a retired salt merchant, poses for a photograph close to his home in the town of Berahile in Afar, northern Ethiopia, April 20, 2013.
x
Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed, a retired salt merchant, poses for a photograph close to his home in the town of Berahile in Afar, northern Ethiopia, April 20, 2013.
Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed, a retired salt merchant, poses for a photograph close to his home in the town of Berahile in Afar, northern Ethiopia, April 20, 2013.
But the tradition of hacking salt slabs from the earth's crust and transporting them by camel is changing as a paved road is built across the northern Afar region.
 
Although the road being cut through the Danakil Depression is making it easier to transport the salt, the region's fiercely independent local salt miners and traders are wary of the access it might give to industrial mining companies with mechanized extraction techniques that require far less labor.
 
"Most of the people who live here are dependent on the salt caravans, so we are not happy with prospective salt companies that try to set up base here," said Abdullah Ali Noor, a chief and clan leader's son in Hamad-Ile, on the salt desert's edge.
 
"Everything has to be initiated from the community. We prefer to stick with the old ways," he added.
 
The tarmac road will link the highland city of Mekele with the village of Dallol in the Danakil Depression, a harsh but hauntingly beautiful geographical wonder of salt flats and volcanoes once described as "a land of death" by the famous British desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
 
The road has cut from five hours to three the drive from Mekele to Berahile, a town two days' trek by camel from the Afar salt deposits that are one of Ethiopia's main sources of the crystalline food product.
 
New roads like these are gradually helping to transform this landlocked Horn of Africa state, which has a unique culture and history but has been racked by coups, famines and droughts, into one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent.
 
As Africa's biggest coffee producer, Ethiopia's economy remains based on agriculture, which accounts for 46 percent of gross domestic product and 85 percent of employment. But its nearly 94 million population — the second biggest in Africa — is attracting the attention of foreign investors hungry for new markets.
 
Access to Market
Further south in the Danakil Depression, at the salt reserve of Lake Afdera, industrial salt production is already under way.
 
A company named Berhane and Zewdu PLC came to the desert plains near Hamad-Ile in 2011 aiming to produce salt there, according to Noor.
 
Clan leaders saw the threat to their ancient trade and lined up to oppose the project. Fearing sabotage of its equipment, the company left the following year, local people said.
 
But Noor still welcomed the new road.
 
"The new highway will give easy access to the market, which will bring benefits and development to this region," Noor said.
 
The development he talks of is visible in Berahile, where caravans from the salt pans come to drop off their cargo so it can be transported to the rest of the country. Most residents are involved directly or indirectly in the salt business.
 
Telephone and electricity networks have been extended to the town over the past four years, a new Berahile Salt Association was established in 2010 to facilitate trade and a recently built salt store is now the biggest construction in town.
 
"Thousands of people benefit from this work as the salt here is exported throughout the country," said the head of the association, Derassa Shifa.
 
For now, tradition and modernity co-exist — the organization buys salt from the caravans that make the four-day trek to the salt flats and back, then sells it to merchants who carry it away by truck.
 
The salt blocks, which were once used as a unit of money, are sold across Ethiopia, many of them to farmers to provide their animals with essential minerals. Ethiopia has the largest livestock population on the African continent.
 
Life is harsh for the thousands of camel herders and salt extractors who use traditional hoes and axes to carve the "white gold" out of the ground in the Danakil Depression.
 
Many of the salt diggers live in Hamad-Ile and hire out their services to different caravans.
 
The work, however exhausting, still draws thousands onto the baking salt flats.
 
"You forget about the sun and the heat," said Kidane Berhe, 45, a camel herder and salt merchant. "I lost a friend once on the salt desert because he was working too much with no protection from the sun. Eventually he just collapsed."

You May Like

Turkey's Erdogan: Women Not Equal to Men

Speaking at conference in Istanbul, President Erdogan says Islam has defined a position for women: motherhood More

Ahead of SAARC Summit, Subdued Expectations

Some regional analysts say distrust between Pakistani, Indian officials has slowed SAARC's progress over the year More

Philippines Leery of Development on Reef Reclamation in S. China Sea

Chinese land reclamation projects in area have been ongoing for years, but new satellite imagery reportedly shows China’s massive construction project More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid