WHAT could possibly be classified as one of the largest â€˜white elephantsâ€™ in the country is the salt processing plant in Kasese.
The $3.5m (sh5.8b) facility near Queen Elizabeth National Park, could reduce Ugandaâ€™s salt import by up to 80%, if it were operational.
Built in 1982 by a team of Swiss â€˜expertsâ€™, it was supposed to process salt from the brine water pumped from Lake Katwe, but the salt that came out smelt bad, says Erinayo Balikyenga, a caretaker of the derelict Lake Katwe salt factory. He works with six other employees and they are paid by the Government.
â€œMost likely the salt corroded the pipes, causing the funny smell. They used the wrong alloy for the pipes. After 1986, the Swiss went away and we have been looking after the factory since then,â€ Balikyenga said.
Most of the pipes are rusty, obviously eaten by the â€˜brineâ€™ from Lake Katwe, which studies show contains over 12 million tonnes of salt.
A study showed that a proper industrial extraction plant could produce seven tonnes of salt per hour for 37 years, totalling 40,000 tonnes per year. Currently, Uganda imports 60,000 tonnes of salt per year from its neighbours.
Balikyenga said some of the items in the factory like three huge boilers, were still in good condition in spite of the run-down appearance of the plant and there is still running water.
The Privatisation Unit (PU) spokesman, Jim Mugunga, said the Government preferred to have an investor take over the factory and possibly exploit the tourism potential since it is next to Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Mugunga said there had been a call for proposals from interested parties for the use of the assets of the project, but the process is incomplete. â€œWe shall see what we get from the expressions of interest,â€ he said.
There is a lot of land around the lake, as well as in the village, with several houses. There are senior quarter houses on a hill by Lake Edward, where one can see the lights from Mweya Safari Lodge on the other side of the lake.
â€œThe houses can be used as tour cottages because they are in fine condition. The roads are tarmacked, there is power, facilities like water heaters, a tennis court and a swimming pool,â€ Balikyenga said.
Lake Katwe is surrounded by small â€˜plotsâ€™ of water which crystallise into â€˜rock saltâ€™ (ebisengo or kisula in Luganda), which is sold.
People around the area say wading in the water is hazardous to the body, but over 300 people make a living from the salt.
â€œEven animals do not drink the water. We have to drink a lot of water and fruit juice because the lake water tends to dry our bodies,â€ said Nyansio Kasoro, who has been mining salt for the last 30 years.
He said they have to scrape the salt off the pond floor with iron bars to get rock salt, while they have to wade into the lake for the powdery salt.
â€œIt is hard work and dangerous, especially for the women, as the chemicals might affect their ability to have children. As a result, there are few of them doing the work,â€ Kasoro said.
Lake Katwe covers an area of eight square miles and its shore is divided into small plots, which Kasoro said cost sh1m each. The owners channel water from the lake to their plots.
After about four days, the water which has crystallised into rock is put into sacks ready for sale. Each 50kg bag of the rough second-grade salt costs sh1,000 before levies.
â€œOver 20 trucks collect salt from here everyday. There is a wrangle at the moment over a sh300 levy by the local council committee which we think is illegal,â€ said a salt miner who preferred anonymity.
He also said the lake is getting shallower because of the extensions on the shores and he was worried that it could eventually dry up completely, if the trend continues unabated.
Meanwhile, Kasoro and company will continue to survive by gathering salt in the traditional way, while Ugandans continue to import large amounts of salt, until proper investors for the Kasese â€˜white elephantâ€™ are finally found.
Reviving Lake Katwe plant could cut salt import by 80%