Blogger series: The food is good and the salt is iodised in Ethiopia

Almost three weeks into the trip, and I’ve arrived in my last country: Ethiopia. The first thing you need to know about Ethiopia is that the food is the best I’ve had so far. You typically get a vast round platter draped with njera – a kind of sourdough pancake – with mounds of chickpea puree, spinach, or meat piled on top. Then you just tear off pieces of njera and scoop it all up.

I’ve seen nothing of Addis Ababa yet, because I’m up north in Mekelle, capital of Tigray province. I flew here with Asmelash, who works on GAIN’s salt iodisation program, to look at the work being done on salt iodisation.

Iodine deficiency has long been a problem in Ethiopia, and can cause goiter, stillbirths and reduced learning capacity. Iodising salt is the easiest way to address this, because everyone uses salt.

It’s been mandatory here since 2011, but iodisation is still uneven, with some producers lacking the right equipment or doing it too haphazardly. The government has also needed support in its role of monitoring production.

We went to visit Shewitt, a salt processing company in Mekelle with an interesting back story: it was established in 2002 as a cooperative by 16 disabled former combatants from the Ethiopian civil war, and it started iodising salt straight away, making it the first producer in Ethiopia to do so. Turnover has grown from 32,000 Birr in its first year, to 5.59m Birr in 2014.

Even for this trendsetting company, production and iodisation is still a very manual job. I saw sacks of raw salt arriving by donkey and being carried inside on people’s backs.

Inside, the salt is carried first to the crusher, then to the iodising machine, and on to the room where a few dozen women sit crouching on the floor, filling 1kg bags with the finished salt and passing them over to another row of women for weighing and sealing. I also peered into the tiny shack where samples are taken three times a day to make sure the salt has been iodised to the right level.

There are only a handful of processors like this in Ethiopia, iodising salt precisely and selling it in labelled packages. Many people buy coarse salt in more informal markets, and while it will usually be iodised too, it often won’t have been done properly, to the right specifications. Increasing the capacity of companies like Shewitt can therefore help increase the availability of good quality iodised salt.

After this, Mengistu (Shewitt’s finance manager, who has been accompanying us around Mekelle) took me to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front monument and museum, commemorating the civil war which ran from 1974 to 1991. I knew little about this war, so it was an eye-opening visit. Outside, there were some helicopters, an old wartime aircraft, and a giant replica bumblebee. I wanted to climb it, but settled for a photo.

We have two more blogs coming in from Caspar in Ethopia, keep your eye on the homepage for Caspar’s full journey through Africa to learn more about the way GAIN is helping local people and communities tackle the complex issue of malnutrition.