Whenever the cactus plant is mentioned to Kenyans, it conjures up images of an invasive species of plant that has colonized thousands of hectares of land in arid and semi-arid parts of the country.
So unpopular has been the cactus that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) once toyed with the idea of biologically controlling the plant by releasing insects that had been used to successfully eliminate the plant in South Africa and Australia.
The toxic plant said to have been introduced in the country by a colonial administrator in the 1940s from Australia has been in the news for all the wrong reasons with farmers blaming it for the death of hordes of their livestock and wildlife.
But all that is no longer on the minds of farmers in parts of Nakuru and the neighbouring Laikipia County. Cactus Scientifically known as Opuntia stricta, or prickly pear, has turned a new leaf and is set to give a bountiful payback, not only to Nakuru and Laikipia residents but to all Kenyans.
Women and youth groups within the devolved units are currently harnessing the nutritional value of cactus by making wines, yoghurt, jam, honey, oils, concentrates and juices.
The beneficiaries now regard the invasive crop that has walloped vast plains in arid and semi-arid parts of the country as a ‘cash cow’ after undergoing training on smart agriculture techniques jointly carried out by Participatory Ecological Land Use Management Association (PELUM) and Laikipia Permaculture Center (LPC).
Director of LPC Joseph Lentunyoi says the program was rolled out after studies established that overgrazing had reduced the usefulness, productivity and biodiversity of land in most arid and semi-arid parts of the country. “One indicator of overgrazing was that the animals ran short of pasture so we figured out ways to try and help the communities in areas dominated by the notorious cacti (opuntia stricta) to make it an alternative source of livelihood.
Previously, Kenyans have been encouraged to cut the cactus plants and bury them deep in the soil,” observes Lentunyoi.
PELUM has introduced into the program the component of wise management of scarce water through improved irrigation and storage technologies, combined with adoption by farmers in arid and semi-arid areas ravaged by the invasive cacti of new drought-resistant crop varieties that contribute to sustaining dry lands productivity.
The women and youth groups have also been equipped with know-how on boosting yields on existing agricultural lands, including restoration of degraded lands and sustainable agricultural practices aimed at relieving pressure to clear forests for agricultural production.
Lentunyoi, a Permaculture consultant says LPC has further trained women and youth groups on how to make soaps and oils from the plant to improve their livelihoods. He states a cacti fruit which is edible in its raw form contains high quantities of unsaturated fat and can also be dried and ground in powder which can be used to fortify baking flour and animal feeds.
An Advocacy officer at PELUM Mr Benson Isoe observes that due to impacts of climate change, over reliance on livestock keeping was a threat to rural economies, food security and nutrition.
By adopting value addition chains in cacti, Isoe observes that farmers will ease pressure on land and open up a new revenue stream. “Climate change has become a threat to food security the world over. Its effects include unpredictable rains, leading to decreased yields and increased production costs.
This prompted us to step up efforts to train farmers to embrace innovative uses and benefits of cacti,” offers Isoe.
On her part, Grace Kaparo from Irerio Women Group says many people who previously relied on pastoralism are harvesting the fruits for value addition and by doing so they are able to maintain their livelihoods as well as manage the cacti.
Ms Kaparo reveals that members from twelve groups had also been trained in the venture to use the plant to produce biogas rich in lignocellulose, the main raw material for the production of biofuels and biochemicals.
The process involves anaerobic fermentation of cacti biomass where the entire plant is crushed using the ordinary chaff-cutter until it becomes a thick paste. The process is repeated three to four times to achieve desired results. The paste is then diluted with water to make it less viscous before it is poured into a 250 litres tank to ferment.
“After three weeks to a month, methane and other gases begin to form in a thermophilic process,” she explains, adding that it works best at a temperature of 370C.
The gas produced and then collected in a biogas tank is a combination of methane, water vapour and sulphur. “We would usually spend much of our day collecting firewood. Cacti Biogas has reduced pressure on forests, as well as freeing up women’s time to engage in other income generating activities,” explained Ms Kaparo.
At LPC, manufacture of wine starts with cleaning the fruits thoroughly, then putting them in a blender which separates the pulp from the seeds. The pulp paste is then drained into 20-litre containers for fermentation that takes about three weeks to yield sweet wine.
To make yoghurt, fresh milk is preheated to 50 degrees Celsius to allow the mixing of ingredients such as sugar. It is then pasteurized to 90 degrees Celsius for between 25 to 30 minutes before it is cooled to 43 degrees Celsius and then starter culture is added.
The product is incubated for six hours as acidity level is monitored. The acceptable concentration of acidity in the milk should be between 0.13 to 0.16 per cent.
The yoghurt is then cooled further to below 15 degrees Celsius and flavours and colours added. “While making yoghurt, rather than add vanilla and strawberry flavours and other additives that are synthetic, we use cacti,” says Ms Kaparo.
She says the plant is rich in vitamins C and A and is an antioxidant that helps prevent cancers and other lifestyle diseases as it is high in minerals such as magnesium, calcium and iron.
By Anne Mwale/Dennis Rasto