Ancient trade in a modern community

Some kids dream of being a pirate, a president, a king. Messen Manna, of Boston, Massachusetts, dreamed of salt, of men in long robes and turbans, of camel caravans stretching across the desert.

Manna, cofounder of Afar Salt with his spouse Za'Yn Muhammad Manna, grew up with the tales his father, an immigrant from the Eritrea region along the Red Sea, told of the illustrious history of his Afar people, whose tribal area encompasses portions of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

In Djibouti, at the lowest and hottest point in Africa, is found the world's saltiest body of water, Lake Assal, which sits in a bowl of untold trillions of tonnes of salt. The easily harvested mineral gave rise to trade from ancient times.

"Actually we believe and evidence supports that this is where trade began," Messen said. "This ancient trade world was based on salt. In the region it was the medium of exchange."

But the peculiar conditions of the area gave rise to a unique and beautiful form of the mineral, one that rarely ended up in the camels' saddlebags: salt pearls. The salty spheres, tumbled at the brine's edge in the extremely hot and dry conditions, grow from tiny beads to spheres the size of golf balls and form the raw material of Afar Salt's signature product.

But in addition to its unique form, the product also claims the benefits of sea salt. The nearby Red Sea feeds the lake's waters, by way of underground percolation and natural filtration.

Messen, who studied anthropology at the University of Kentucky, wanted not only to market an ancient and natural product, he wanted to support the people doing it. With the blessings of government officials and the local sultan, Messen engaged a workforce of about 20 local men to harvest the salt.

"They make about 15 per cent above the standard wages in the region," Za'Yn said. "The goal is to keep people working throughout the year."

"We're working with the women and the children," she said. "It has almost nothing to do with the salt; the salt is a platform to work with them on health-care issues and other things like that."

"I was always looking at how we could connect markets over here with small producers over there," Messen said. "I was looking at how people could maintain pride in their communities and not have to leave to go to the cities."

Afar Salt is on track to harvest about 100 tonnes of salt in its first full year of production. In the following year, Za'Yn said, "we'll just about triple that and we likely will not go too far beyond that. We don't want to lose the social dynamic of working with the people."

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