Nigeria's salt import is soaring amid huge deposits in Benue, Cross River, Ebonyi, Abia, Taraba and Nasarawa states.
Despite the abundance of sources of salt in the country, Nigeria spends huge amounts of foreign exchange (forex) on the importation of the commodity, investigation has shown.
Experts believe that the country is blessed with many sources of salt, including natural brine in lakes, springs and saline waters.
Salt is used mostly in cooking, preservation, soap, detergents and dyes.
According to Dr. Fuhad Agbaje, among the benefits of salt is the control of the body's fluid balance, the functioning of the muscles and the nerves, promotion of healthy weight and metabolism.
When consumed adequately, Dr. Agbaje said salt also aided balancing blood sugar level and stabilised heartbeat.
But Mr. Essien Mathew, a geologist, regretted that despite its abundant deposits in the country, the processing of salt was still done locally.
Mr. Matthew said there had not been deliberate government policy towards developing salt production in the country.
The Minister of State for Mines and Steel Development, Dr. Uchechukwu Ogah, recently announced that; "there is a Federal Government project which is called Presidential Initiative on Development of Salts in Ebonyi State which we have brought consultants to look at how they can develop the salt project, which is the first in the history of this country coming to the South East and being driven by the Ebonyi State governor."
Since the announcement was made, there has not been any significant progress in the development of the product.
Sources at the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development told Daily Trust that the ministry had not done anything on salt.
A Director in the Department of Artisanal and Small Scale Mining (ASM) of the ministry, Mr. Patrick Ojeka, was quoted on the ministry's website as saying, "Some states such as Nasarawa, Ebonyi, Benue and Cross River are sitting on inland salt boom, but only the local women are fetching the liquid and evaporating it into salt.
"If there is a policy and adequate implementation put in place, industries will harness the liquid and refine it into salt, instead of importing the product, which we have in abundance."
Why importation persists
The national demand for table salt, caustic soda, among others exceeds one million tonnes, a document from the Raw Materials Research Development Council (RMRDC) has shown.
Experts believe that the processing of the commodity is still done locally by rural dwellers and thus cannot meet national demand. This, they insist, informs its continued importation.
The RMRDC document shows that the importation of salt, including table salt and denatured salt and pure sodium chloride, in 2018 was worth $63m, compared to 2017 when $52m worth was imported.
RMRDC noted that: "This has been the pattern of salt importation in Nigeria on annual basis.
"For instance, in 2015, an estimated value of $43.5m was imported and this rose to $50m in 2016."
According to the council, the top trading partners of Nigeria in 2018 were Brazil (45 per cent); Namibia (40 per cent); China (5.84 per cent) and USA (3.33 per cent).
Recent data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) show upward trends in salt importation.
NBS said the nation imported salt worth N4.5bn in Q1 of 2019 and that by December, 2019 (Q4), salt (including crude salt) importation went up to N4.8bn (N2.5bn and N2.3bn from Brazil and Namibia), which represent a 25 per cent increase from the same period in 2018 which stood at N3.6bn.
The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in a study on: "Salt Production and Trade in Africa", noted that of the global salt production, around five million tonnes is produced in Africa.
GAIN further noted that, "Countries like Nigeria prefer to import their requirement of table salt from outside the region - principally Namibia and South Africa - but also from Australia, India and Brazil."
The Vice President of Dangote Group, Alhaji Sani Dangote, in 2016, drew the attention of the country to the whopping $700m being spent annually on salt importation, which indicated the enormity of soaring import bills.
Local effort to produce salt
One of our reporters who was in Awe Local Government Area of Nasarawa State recently visited Akira Salt Village where the salt deposits are found around a warm spring.
Around the spring, white salt can be seen, which evaporates from the ground and coagulates at the top of the soil.
The spring is naturally warm and salty at all times and becomes warmer in low temperature.
Local miners in Akira collect the salt mesh in the soil for refining using the warm spring water, a method which dates back to 100 years.
Our reporter's guide, Abubakar Galadima, said using different sources of water other than from the warm spring, would not give the required result in the refining process.
Like Awe, Keana LGA is another area of the state endowed with salt, but only local miners use primitive methods to process it.
Once you are given the right, one starts collecting soil and spreading it in the sun. After some days, the salt in its crude form evaporates to the surface and the miner then collects the soil which is made up of the salt to local huts where it is deposited.
The top soil is then fetched in a container with tiny holes that allows water containing the salt to drip into a pot.
The next stage is the collection of the warm spring salt water to dilute the soil containing the salt to shred off all the salt into the pot.
The water is then boiled till it dries; leaving the salt for collection and drying.
The process takes a few days.
During the dry season, the raw materials are collected and stored in a hut for usage during the rainy season as mining is nearly impossible in the wet period except processing under rain-protective huts.
FG wades in
The Federal Government of Nigeria, through RMRDC, commissioned a study to trigger commercial production of salt within the study area in order to augment national supply and thereby reduce the pressure on scarce foreign reserves.
The DG of RMRDC, Prof. Hussaini D. Ibrahim, said the council had sponsored a research project to conduct an integrated investigation into the saline ground waters within parts of the Central Benue Trough in order to understand their basic hydro geochemical characteristics and to identify the major processes controlling their concentration and accumulation.
Prof. Ibrahim said RMRDC partnered the Federal Polytechnic, Nasarawa, on the design and fabrication of a thin layer evaporator and a solar dryer to upgrade the indigenous process used by native communities in order to add value to raw salt and to promote investment in local salt processing.
The fabrication and test-running of the equipment has been completed and some modifications have been carried out to rectify the problems identified during the test-run.
The DG informed that plans had reached advanced stage for the establishment of salt refining plants in Keana and Azara of Nasarawa State and that the salt refinery would serve as a common facility centre to refine the salt produced in various communities within the state.
The DG further said, "The council is working towards encouraging investors to build salt refineries in the area to reduce the cost of importation of salt.
"So far, two investors have been identified and the council is working with them to ensure the project is actualised."