Massawa salt factory

Massawa Salt Factory: Revitalizing Eritrea’s Salt Industry

Development News

∎ Eritrea’s salt production sector holds immense potential due to the extensive coastal areas and the high salinity of the Red Sea.

∎ Massawa salt factory aims to ramp up production from its current level of 20,000 tons to 100,000 tons within the next five years.

∎ With ongoing development at the Halibay site, production of a million tons of salt is probable.

∎ The Menkaekae site near the city of Assab have the potential to produce up to 10 million tons of salt.

∎ With installation of advanced salt refineries, the factory would start producing value added products, such as gypsum, Clorox, Caustic soda, Soda ash and Chlorine.

There are several potential opportunities to grow the economy in Massawa with public private investments. A Free Trade Zone Authority has been launched and its construction activities in the port of Massawa are already underway.

Twice in its history, Eritrea had the fastest-growing GDP in Africa, once in the 1940s and again between 1994 and 1997. Unfortunately, the border war with Ethiopia hindered this progress. However, in recent years Eritrea has made strides in rebuilding its economy. It is blessed with abundant natural resources, and the excavation of mineral resources and extraction of its gold deposits have once again put it on the spotlight for economic development.

Due to its location alongside the Red Sea, Massawa is home to a salt factory. Massawa Salt Factory was established by two Italian investors in 1907 under the name Società Italiana Salina per L’Eritrea. At the beginning, the production was labor intensive, with work done using shovels, mattocks, buckets, baskets, wagons, and other hand operated rudimentary tools.

Over the years the factory developed and was modernized, producing hundreds of thousands of tons of salt up until the end of the Second World War. In the few years between the end of the Second World War and the time Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia, it experienced a decline in production. During the federation period, new machines were imported, including bull dozers, loaders, excavators, harvesters, trailer trucks, and processing and packaging machines. In 1968, the overall capacity of the plant peaked and reached up to around 120,000 tons after the introduction of new machinery and equipment. The projected production capacity of the plant was about 120,000 tons from around 425 hectares of salt evaporation pans.

The plant remained in the hands of its original owners until its nationalization in 1975 by the Ethiopian government. After its nationalization, the factory struggled to meet customer demands due to mismanagement, the situation of the workers deteriorated, its production dwindled, and it eventually lost access to international market.

During its heyday, it exported to Malaysia, South Korea, India, Japan, Kenya and others. However, under the Dergue regime, the distribution of salt within Ethiopia was in itself a major challenge let alone exporting it.

When Massawa was liberated in 1990, the EPLF undertook renovation efforts on the plant, making it resume production. From 1992 onwards, the plant gradually increased its production capacity, reaching 83,000 tons in 1995.

Mr. Negasi Goitom, Massawa Slat FactoryMr. Negasi Goitom, General Manger of Massawa Salt Works, said that as the factory is presently located within the area that has been designated as the free trade zone, it is being relocated to a new area called Halibay. The Dembe Kutmiya area, now commonly called ‘enda Korea’ residential complex, previously served as a salt evaporation pan for the Massawa Salt Works.

The evaporation fields decreased following the use of the area for building the apartments, subsequently reducing the production capacity of the factory. Currently, the factory is mainly catering to the domestic market.

Mr. Negansi said that after Eritrea gained independence, Massawa experienced significant expansion, and the salt production factory was surrounded by city infrastructure. As a result, it was decided to relocate the plant to a more suitable area.

In 1998, a British company conducted a feasibility study in collaboration with an Eritrean company to identify potential areas for salt production. The study confirmed that the Berenji area was suitable for salt production. Initially, the plan was to produce around 20 thousand tons of salt intended for domestic consumption until the plant is fully relocated to the Halibay area, where the construction of a large facility is underway.

Mr. Negasi said that developing the new site from scratch proved to be a challenging task due to the swampy nature of the area. Clearing the swamp required a considerable amount of work and ingenuity. As the task was beyond the capacity of Massawa Salt Factory, Sawa Construction Company was entrusted with the development of the evaporation pans.

The plan was initially to produce around 20,000 tons of salt for the domestic market, with 64 hectares of evaporation pans prepared. According to the British company’s study, around 200,000 tons of salt could be harvested from approximately 800 hectares and over a million tons from around 3,800 hectares. The total production capacity of salt from the evaporation pans is currently approaching 200,000 tons, with an additional 200 hectares prepared this year, said Mr. Solomon Tsegay, Head of the Technique Department in factory and currently also working as inspector of the new site.

Salt Production Stages

According to Mr. Dawit Asefaw, Director of Quality Control at Massawa Salt Works, the salt processing undergoes multiple stages. The process begins with the channeling of seawater to the evaporation pans. The seawater is then left in the first stage salt evaporation pans to increase its density until it reaches 15 degrees of Baume. Subsequently, it is transferred to the concentrator pan, where it remains until it reaches 25 degrees of Baume. At this point, calcium-sulfate is removed. The salt is further transferred to the crystallizer, where it reaches a density of 29 degrees of Baume. Afterward, it is harvested and transferred to the processing plant, where impurities are removed. The salt density in the Red Sea is 3.5 degrees of Baume, higher than the Mediterranean Sea and the oceans.

Massawa salt factory aims to ramp up production from its current level of 20,000 tons to 100,000 tons within the next five years.
Massawa salt factory aims to ramp up production from its current level of 20,000 tons to 100,000 tons within the next five years.

For a successful salt harvest, hot temperature, low permeable soil, absence of rain, strong and dry wind, and low moisture are very important.

During the crystallization stage, elements such as magnesium sulfate and barium sulfate settle on the top level of the sediment. Following harvesting, the salt undergoes a washing process, which increases its sodium chloride content from 95% to over 96.5%. According to the Eritrean Bureau of Standards, salt with a sodium chloride content exceeding 96% is considered high-quality.

After undergoing all these processes, including washing, processing, and iodization, the salt becomes a high-quality product. The iodization of salt during the production process is of utmost importance. The addition of iodine to salt helps prevent various diseases and plays a crucial role in human mental and physical development. The iodization of the salt produced by Massawa Salt Factory began in 1995, primarily driven by the United Nations’ initiative to eliminate iodine deficiency related deaths. The UN assisted in the form of iodine and iodizers. The formal implementation of the iodization process started at the salt factories in Massawa and Assab, and it is still ongoing.

According to the Ministry of Health’s guidelines, the salt should contain 40 to 80 parts per million of iodine. The iodine is sprayed onto the salt using a compressor. While there are private salt producers in Eritrea, Mr. Dawit advises people to use only salt produced by Massawa Salt Factory. The iodization process at their factory is conducted scientifically and ensures even distribution of iodine on the salt.

Export Oriented

Mr. Negasi emphasizes it is not enough to produce and stock the salt; it also needs to be processed and monetized. For this reason finding buyers at the international market is crucial.

Market studies were conducted in Kenya and Uganda in 1996, revealing high demand for products of Massawa Salt Works, and exports were initiated to those countries at that time. Records of the plant show that before the war with Ethiopia broke out in 1998, around 80,000 tons of salt were exported, generating approximately three million dollars of income. Although in smaller quantities, exports also continued to countries like Japan and South Korea. Currently, efforts are being made to regain access to the international market and revive trade links. The quality of the salt produced in the factory meets international standards.

“The quality of the final product depends on adhering to the proper production stages. Our customers often inquire about our production process. We provide them with the formulas we follow, and when the product reaches them, they conduct laboratory analyses to confirm their conformity with the provided formulas. If the laboratory results align with the specified formulas, they proceed to purchase our products,” said Mr. Dawit.

Future Plan

Mr. Negasi said that the target at the Halibay project is to increase production from 20,000 to 100,000 tons in the next five years, with further plans to reach over a million tons. With proper preparations and the necessary production tools, the capacity could easily exceed one million tons as there is ample space available.

The salt production sector holds immense potential in Eritrea, thanks to the extensive coastal areas and the high salinity of the Red Sea. According to several studies, areas like Menkaekae, near the city of Assab, have the potential to produce up to 10 million tons of salt. According to Mr. Negassi, with the ongoing development of the Halibay site, the production of one million tons of salt would result in potential earnings of approximately one billion dollars at the current market value.

Massawa Salt Factory
Upon the installation of advanced salt refineries, the factory will initiate the production of value-added products, including gypsum, Clorox, caustic soda, soda ash, and chlorine.

“To realize this vision, we plan to install advanced and modern salt refineries. These machines process salt from the initial washing stage to the packaging stage. Coarse salt currently holds a market value of 35 to 40 dollars per ton in the international market, while refined and fine salt produced by the refineries can fetch up to 400 dollars per ton. Therefore, our future plan involves establishing these refineries, producing value-added products and high-quality salt, and generating foreign currency from this renewable resource. It is imperative that we effectively exploit this resource,” Mr. Negassi added.

Globally, annual salt production stands at around 200 million tons, with over 94 percent being utilized for industrial purposes and the remaining six percent used for human and animal consumption. It is a versatile commodity that finds applications in more than 14,000 industries, making it highly sought after on a global scale.

In addition to salt, Massawa Salt Works also produces salt by-products such as gypsum, which is utilized for decoration and other purposes, as well as Clorox for hygiene and sanitization. Furthermore, the factory has plans to produce caustic soda, soda ash, and chlorine which are essential in the manufacturing of various products.

[BY HABTOM TESFAMICHAEL | ERITREA PROFILE | 3/12/2024]