By Manuel Soares
The establishment of the country’s first iodised salt refinery plant by NPM Industries in Ulmera, Liquica District, with support from MDF is a major breakthrough in the attempt to ensure availability of locally produced, good quality and competitive iodised salt in the country.
Low intake of iodine in people’s basic diet, particularly salt leads to Iodine deficiency and is a prominent health concern for women, men and children in Timor-Leste. The prevalence of iodine deficiency disorder, particularly in women and young children, are estimated at 5% nationally and as high as 20% in certain districts.
Iodine deficiency affects about two billion people worldwide and is the leading preventable cause of intellectual and developmental disabilities and causes thyroid gland problems, including endemic goitre.
Less than half of the country consumes any form of iodised salt, most of which comes from cheap and poor quality imports. In 2012, Timor-Leste imported approximately 2,000 metric tons of salt, not all of which was iodised.
But most of the population only has access to local salt, which is not refined or iodised. The local salt sector is mostly made up of a small number of household producers who produce salt applying traditional methods using firewood and boilers to evaporate salt brine. This method is time consuming, small scale and has negative implications for the environment through use of scarce firewood. This unrefined salt is sold almost entirely at the sub-district level.
The Government of Timor-Leste has initiated efforts to promote the consumption of iodised salt in the country. In collaboration with other development partners, the government has also provided support to smaller cooperatives to produce salt at a local level.
However, despite improvements in the collection of raw salt from salt farms, local producers are far from achieving sufficient scale and competitiveness in comprehensively addressing the total demand for iodised salt in the country.
The salt sector in Timor-Leste suffers from inefficiencies and lack of technical capacity to produce iodised salt at the small producer level. Additionally, an absence of a large scale buyer that can source raw salt, test it, refine, process, iodise, package and sell it in the local market makes the local products uncompetitive compared to imports.
But this is changing with the help of MDF’s partnership with NPM Industries. It aims to pioneer refining and iodisation of locally sourced raw salt from Timorese salt farmers and collectors.
MDF is assisting with engagement of technical experts to provide on-the-job training for NPM staff on operating the testing and refinery facility; introducing modern farming technology (use of geo-membrane) for cleaner and faster evaporation of salt; and promoting the first ever locally produced iodised in the country through branding as well as raising awareness of the benefits of consuming iodised salt.
“MDF is doing very noble work in helping to establish and promote local businesses in Timor-Leste. Their support has been critical to get our staff and facility ready for operations,” said Pravin Mishra, Director, NPM Industries.
The partnership with NPM Industries will enable regular sales of raw salt to a large-scale commercial processor providing a stable source of income for small-scale salt farmers and salt collectors.
The increasing demand for locally iodised salt is also expected to contribute to creation of jobs for men and women while playing a critical role in the country’s efforts to address iodine deficiency disorders.