by Sabena Siddiqui 15 November 2019
In recent years, pink Himalayan salt has been in great demand globally for its incredible health benefits but it is not widely known that it is from Pakistan. Mined from Khewra in Punjab, Pakistan, the pink salt is named after the famous Himalayan mountain ranges which are 1136 kilometers away.
According to popular myths, these mines were accidentally discovered by Alexander the Great’s horse circa 326 BC when it fell on a stone that was found to be salty. It is also believed that these humongous reserves were formed millions of years ago due to the evaporation of ancient bodies of water.
Actual excavation began centuries later in the 1200 s but the mines started production after the main ground tunnel was constructed in 1872 during the days of British rule in the subcontinent. Spread across an area of 110 square kilometers, half a mile of the mining facility is under a mountain. Interestingly, it is quite common for people with asthmatic or respiratory problems to stay in specially built salt caves at the Khewra salt mines.
Though Pakistan has more salt reserves at Kalabagh and Warcha in Punjab, this salt from its second largest mines at Khewra has acquired a lot of fame due to its purity and attractive pink color. Presntly, the Khewra mines are producing 325,000 tonnes per year and are projected to yield pink salt for another 350 years.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has not been able to get maximum profits or recognition from this exclusive product even though it is Asia’s only salt producer and the world’s second largest. Ranked at 20th among world salt exporters, it lags behind while regional countries like India and China are listed at 7th and 9th respectively.
Around 30 % of the global salt demand also comes from China and it prefers Pakistani salt as it is is 99% pure while other varieties contain impurities. Selling at expensive rates abroad, pink salt is locally priced at Rs.572 per kg, it sells for at least Rs 1525 abroad and if re-branded and re-packaged, it is worth even more.
Estimated to contain as many as 84 different minerals, the salt is pink because it contains a lot of iron. Retaining natural properties because it is manually extracted at source in Pakistan, it is minimally processed to yield an unrefined product free of artificial additives. While ordinary salt is comprised of 98% sodium chloride, pink Himalayan salt retains many minerals and trace elements due to its natural harvesting process in Pakistan.
Though some of the health benefits claimed require further research, the salt has a distinct taste of its own as it contains potassium, magnesium and calcium. Therefore, it has caught the imagination of health freaks around the world and ordinary salt is being abandoned. Becoming the latest fad in the West, it is added to drinks or meals to prevent dehydration while blocks of pink salt have turned into serving dishes while the crystal form is used as bath salts.
Even though salt exports from Pakistan grew by 34% since 2014, according to Ministry of Commerce statistics, reaching $51.6 million per annum from just $15.8 million during this period, a lot more needs to be done to get direct access to global markets, competing with India and China which hold monopoly over this Pakistani product.
Several issues have to be dealt with;
For starters, Pakistan likes to export its pink Himalayan as Halite, which is rock salt. Therefore, the buyers would refine and re-package it to sell with their own brand names. Pakistan needs to set up modern processing, packaging units and work out better marketing strategies. Lately, a local Pakistani masala brand has started marketing pink salt abroad but more investment is required.
In the meantime, the scale of salt extraction could be slowed down to raise prices to an optimum level which can bring in more revenue. New value-added products could be introduced at the country of origin for direct marketing abroad and any illegal branding by other countries needs to be discouraged according to the Global Indication Law and Intellectual Property Organization
Also, prices need regulation and it has to be ensured that credit is given to Pakistan as the country of origin and it is sold with its original branding. More border checks are required to discourage salt smuggling and sale to domestic users could also be streamlined.
Until the year 2007, the Pakistan Minerals Development Cooperation managed salt exports but later the task of regulating prices of salt exports was given to the private sector which depended on a dated e-form method of payment. Consequently, international buyers found it easier to buy salt from other countries which became the intermediary and Pakistan got exploited.
Finally, Pakistan needs to review its export policies at the earliest to capture new markets in the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Africa and North America to recover lost ground.