According to a report published by UNICEF and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, nearly 19 million babies born annually are at risk of permanent yet preventable brain damage and reduced cognitive function due to the lack of iodine in the earliest years of life. A Senegalese woman is working to change those odds in her country.
Senegal mines over 450 000 tonnes of salt every year, making it the largest producer in West Africa. The country's small-scale miners account for one third of this overall production, according to The Guardian newspaper. Unfortunately, many of these small-scale farmers fail to iodise their salt, meaning only about 37% of Senegalese households have access to adequately iodised salt, according to a 2015 nationwide survey. Statistics for the rural areas are even worse. And because Senegal is such a large salt producer in the region, countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are also affected by this deficiency.
Mining in Senegal is mainly done in two ways. The first is by digging for salt from the lake bed and placing it in a basket before offloading it onto a boat, using the lake's buoyancy to help the process along. This is the harvesting mode in Lake Retba, where each man collects 1 to 1.5 tonnes of salt every day, depending on the time of year.
The second is how Marie Diouf does it on her privatised area on the salt plains of Fatick. Salt water is pumped out of the nearby lake and evaporates on the land, producing about four to five tonnes of salt daily in peak season. Diouf was the first woman to invest in these plots after the government decided to privatise the area.
"When I saw men who had their own land, I thought, 'Why not me?'" Diouf told CNN. "When I first started, men were telling me that I wasn't going to last in this business, but I would say to them that every job a man can do, a woman can too."
Through a presidential decree that all salt harvested in Senegal be iodised, small scale farmers are now part of a public health strategy to prevent iodine deficiency, which can cause goiter (swollen thyroid glands in the neck), stunted growth and mental impairment, all health issues that had long plagued parts of Senegal.
The recommended daily intake of iodine for an adult is 150 micrograms a day. Pregnant women are especially in need of the intake because oftentimes, by the time salt supplements are handed out to pregnant women, it is too late to make any significant impact.
In addition, newly iodised salt is not only a health benefit but a financial one too: It increases the sale value of each tonne of salt from 22 000 Central African francs (CFA; US$43) to 32 000 CFA.
Diouf has taken on the title of iodine champion and has placed herself as a key player in the fight against "hidden hunger", according to The Guardian.
"Iodine is fundamental in the mental development of the fetus," Diouf told The Guardian. "By iodising salt, I can give children throughout Africa the best head start in life."
Regional representative for the government's universal salt iodisation project, Adama Nguirane, told CNN that the difficulty lies in a lack of means and the difficulty convincing people to buy iodised salt when they can get it in their own backyard for free.
That is why it is critical to get women like Diouf involved in the supply chain, Nguirane said, because they are the ones who cook meals for their families and take care of the children.
"I believe in the development of my country and it is essential that we fix this problem for our children and our future," Nguirane said. "Marie is the model, and we rely on her to show us the way."