by Revd Francis King’ang’a.

African traditional salt or lye (uvusaaru) has been used for generations in our area of Western Kenya. In recent years it has been replaced by common table salt. Lye was used for cooking vegetables, soap-making and for some medicinal purposes. Older people believe that using lye for daily cooking helped people to live longer because of its medical benefits.

It is very easy to produce lye from all kinds of local vegetation. In this area we use mostly bean husks, maize husks, pawpaw leaves, grass and papyrus reeds – which have few other uses here.

The vegetation is cut and burnt while still green. The ashes are collected and kept in a large container. The ash is then mixed with rainwater in smaller containers and passed several times through clean cloths to remove the particles of dirt. The filtered liquid is stored either in large pots or plastic bottles. This liquid can also be heated at high temperature in pans and allowed to evaporate, leaving crystals of salt. The end product is thus either liquid salt in solution or crystals of salt. 

We began producing lye in 1997 as a community-owned initiative project here in Vihiga. It has encouraged the use of local technology and provided an income generating activity for people. We have arranged to have the lye analysed in a science laboratory to learn about the balance of ingredients it contains.

Revd Francis King’ang’a is the Project Co-ordinator at Vihiga Community Lye Production Centre, PO Box 1071, Maragoli, Vihiga, Kenya.

Uses of lye salt

  • Lye is used as a cooking salt which gives flavour, softens vegetables and also contains a lot of calcium – a mineral that helps strengthen bones.
  • Lye can be used instead of sodium bicarbonate to help in baking.
  • It can be used as a soap for washing dirty clothes and also acts as an antiseptic.
  • It softens hard water.
  • The liquid lye can be used as a preservative.
  • The crystals can be mixed with grains to protect against pests.
  • Liquid lye can be used as a mouth wash.
  • Lye can be used to make soap when mixed with animal fat.
  • Small quantities of liquid lye help ease constipation and neutralise stomach acids.
  • Lye can be used to preserve animal skins.