Every year during the dry season from December to April, the women in South Benin's Ouidah region scrape the salty marshland to create highly concentrated salt brines, which they rinse with seawater before boiling them for several hours on their stoves to produce sea salt. Salt production, which is a traditional activity for women and youth there during this time of the year, consumes around 15,000 m3 of mangrove wood every season. Mangrove wood is the preferred source for firewood because it generates high heat without generating much smoke. Seeing the increasingly devastating effects mangrove cutting and burning has on their coastal lagoon, however, the Association of Women Lagoon Workers (AFEL) has sought to introduce a new technique which does not require fire wood for the process. Over the last twelve years, AFEL has worked with UniverSel, a French salt cooperative (part of the French company Sel de Guarande) to introduce the new technique in Benin through the support of the French Global Environment Facility (FFEM) and IUCN Netherlands.
Using black plastic tarps to line salt water ponds, the brine evaporates over the course of the day solely with the help of the sun and wind. These ponds can be locally constructed within 1 ½ hours. In 2011, GEF SGP Benin supported AFEL to further diffuse the solar salt technology in the villages of Agbanzinkpota and Ahou. In order to enable the women salt producers to purchase the tarps which usually amount to around USD30, SGP helped AFEL create a revolving fund. Consequently, 480 women managed to purchase and set up solar salt ponds, measuring 4,800m2 and producing collectively around 240 tons of salt each year. Foregoing firewood burning in this process, saves around 365 kg of CO2 emissions every year.
The introduction of the solar salt technique had a noticeable effect on the communities and the coastal lagoon. "The women suffered a lot from the traditional production of salt", said Ms. Gbeabladoe Dossavi-Yovo, a woman salt producer. " This is why we adopted a new technique as an experiment. I made my first salt tray and I have now perfected my technique which leaves me time to rest." The new technique only takes around 20 minutes in the morning and the evening respectively. Ms. Gbeabladoe Dossavi-Yovo, who actually went on a study visit to Sel de Guarande in France to personally learn about solar salt production, is eager to diffuse the environmentally sustainable and effective technique among other women salt producers. "Mangrove wood has become rare here, so we had to go buy wood in other towns to make salt. We do not have enough wood here anymore. This is why I have sensitized other women in my village to follow me. With the revenue from salt I know manage to send my kids to school, I can buy food and get health services when I am sick." Overall, women solar salt producers have been able to nearly double their net income.
Men have also been affected by the severe loss of mangrove forests, as they have seen their fish catch diminish over the last few decades, but have noticed some recovery in terms of mangroves and biodiversity thanks to GEF SGP, FFEM and IUCN conservation activities in the area. The SGP initiative targeted six communities involving 2,500 women, 1,500 men and 1,000 youth. The participants were actively involved in reforestation, as well as mapping and zoning mangrove areas for protection and sustainable usage. Southern Benin has lost around 50% of its mangrove forests since the 1990s. Reforestation activities, protection of mangrove areas and a new solar salt production technique allows mangroves to recover in the coastal lagoon. But more action, especially in terms of providing other alternative livelihood options, is needed.
To date, AFEL remains the only civil society organization in Benin active in the diffusion of the solar salt production. The technology transfer is up to the women and its scope has slowly but surely increased among the women producers and communities. In addition, two other national NGOs have benefited from exchange visits to the salt production sites of AFEL. So far, the initiative has spread to two other villages who mobilized for the purchase of tarps with the support of the AFEL. The organization needs further assistance with marketing and commercialization of its products to further the diffuse solar salt technique. It is in the process of trying to obtain licensing for the Fair Trade Network with the help of the organization HELVETICA.
Pictures #1 and #3 extracted from IUCN video Sel Solaire a Ouidah produced by Jean-Claude Frisque.