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It’s not just oil

Regina Kasangaki displays a handful of freshly harvested salt from her salt pan. (Photo: Emil H.)

Regina Kasangaki displays a handful of freshly harvested salt from her salt pan. (Photo: Emil H.)

LAKE KATWE, KASESE DISTRICT: 10,000 years ago, volcanic eruptions created 52 crater lakes in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kasese District. One of these, Lake Katwe, has long been the source of most of the salt consumed in Uganda.

Unlike the oil and gas industry, where only big spenders with colossal sums of money can afford to venture, the Lake Katwe salt mining industry is dominated by ordinary Ugandans, some of whom started off with as little as five hundred thousand shillings (US$ 200).

The shallow lake has been divided up into hundreds of small, square plots called salt pans, demarcated using earth and pieces of wood. About 800 people, a quarter of whom are women, own at least one salt pan here, with some owning several.  Acquiring a plot here costs anything between one and four million shillings depending on its size, although it is not common to find one on sale.

A tourist guide to the area claims that some of the salt pans existed as early as the 14th century; possibly an exaggeration, but this is certainly one of the oldest ‘extractives’ industries in Uganda.

Better than agriculture

Regina Kasangaki has been earning a living from salt mining since the 1960s, when she was in her early teenage years. She says she was introduced to the business by an aunt “during the Toro Kingdom days.”

She told Oil in Uganda that the salt business is better than agriculture and she had never considered abandoning it for farming.

“Here, the seasons are more predictable, unlike farming,” she said. “There is also no risk of the wild animals eating or destroying your crops.”

She however admits that business is slower during the rainy seasons because the harvests are done during the dry season.

Florence Katende who chairs the Mahonde Women’s group of female salt miners, also has no regrets.

“I have got money to pay my children’s school fees, bought cows and built a house from  this salt,” she said, adding that she saves 60-100 thousand shillings a month. One of her sons recently acquired an Education Degree from Makerere University, while her daughter is pursuing a Diploma at another institution.

Oil fears

Most of the miners confess that they know little about oil, yet some of them express fear that oil activity may affect their business.

“We hear there is oil here and they will come and buy us out,” says Nantezza, an elderly miner well into her seventies, “But where shall we go?”

Florence Katende, who is also a Local Council Chairperson, says the locals have heard a lot of contradictory information about oil and some are convinced it will affect their work.

“We think if they drill it will affect our salt,” she says, without elaborating. “Yet we can’t qualify for the oil jobs.”

Regina Kasangaki is more resigned. “Only God knows (if oil will affect the Lake). For me my concern is here, I don’t care about the oil,” she says.

Kasese is one of Uganda’s most endowed areas. As well as salt, it has copper, limestone, a thriving fishing industry in Lakes George and Edward, a National Park and a recently commissioned geo thermal plant.

With all that natural resource wealth, who really needs oil?

Report by Chris Musiime