Mr Nelson Mutwa, a food scientist, has had a love affair with cacti for quite some time now.
The Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology graduate who has produced juices, concentrates, jam, and marmalade from the plant wants to invest more in research on the plant to help people understand and exploit its commercial value.
Mr Mutwa said that he plans to train farmers, supply them with seeds, and eventually set up a cacti processing venture, adding that â€œconsumer acceptability may be challenging and could take time.â€
He said that the plant, seen as a thorny nuisance by most people, â€œholds the key to turning around fortunes of the vast arid and semi arid regions of Kenya.â€
His love affair with cacti began in 2010 when he was a third-year student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (Jkuat) taking a degree course in food science. â€œI was on a field trip when I saw a lot of cacti and decided to research on the plant as a class project,â€ he said.
Now undertaking a Master of Science degree at the same university, Mr Mutwa has been researching on benefits of cacti, domestication, and the viability of commercial cactus cultivation. Research has shown that the plant is rich in antioxidants, which help to burn excess cholesterol from the body.
The plant is also rich in phytochemicals, which help to detoxify the body and in the treatment of prostrate cancer and stomach ulcers.
Minerals present in cactuses include potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron. It also has vitamins A, B C, and K.
So far, Mr Mutwa has produced a host of items from the cactus fruit which include juice, concentrates, jam, marmalade, wine, and yoghurt flavours and colouring.
Cacti fruits are also eaten while seeds, which contain unsaturated fats, are dried and ground into flour which is used for baking. Cactus leaves treat constipation, act as a natural laxative, strengthen body immunity, and prevent muscle inflammation.
Sap from the leaves heals wounds and is used in the cosmetics industry. The leaves and fruit also contain pectin, a chemical that helps in the healing of diabetes by stabilising glucose and insulin levels. Its stem is a source of animal fodder, especially in dry seasons.
In Eritrea, the prickly pear (cactus fruit) is the most popular summer fruit. According to Eritreaâ€™s Ministry of Agriculture, the area under cacti is estimated at 10,000 hectares.
In South American countries, flesh from young cactus leaves is eaten as a vegetable and is added to salads, soups, and stews. In Mexico, cacti cultivation is a big business. The cacti industry is worth $150 million globally with over 10,000 farmers cultivating it.
Mexicoâ€™s cacti industry is highly developed, with advanced husbandry systems and improved post-harvest technology in storage, cleaning, processing, packing, and shipping.
Other countries which commercially grow cactuses include Chile, South Africa, Italy, and Israel which have fully developed the cacti industry. In Morocco, where cacti grows extensively in the wild, the government plans to develop and expand cultivation. Japan is one of the worldâ€™s biggest consumers of cacti products.
But in Kenya the story is quite different with the plant being seen as a valueless menace. In Laikipia, for example, a controversy is raging between pastoralists and government officials over the extensive spread of cactus in grazing lands.
Pastoralists claim that the prickly pear, which was introduced in the area by the colonial government in the 1950â€™s, has colonised most ranches and want nothing to do with it.
Colonial settlers used the plant for fencing, to keep off predators, and also planted it in gullies to check soil erosion. Mr Mutwa said that he was working with communities to help them see opportunities in cultivating the plant.
A major advantage of cacti as a commercial crop is its hardy nature, Mr Mutwa said. It thrives in dry areas.
Diseases and pesticides
The plant is not affected by diseases and pesticides, and does not need fertiliser to grow. MrÂ Mutwa said that he was creating awareness on the viability of cacti as a cash crop through community outreach programmes.
â€œSeveral farmers in Sultan Hamud have responded positively and are cultivating it,â€ he said. He plans to contract farmers, supply them with seeds, and build their skills on cacti husbandry. This, he said, would ensure consistent, high quality, production of the plant which would ensure commercialisation.
Propagation of cacti is done mainly through cuttings. Varieties such as Red Cactus take six to eight months to mature, while the Green Cactus takes one to one and a-half years to mature.
To domesticate the plant and reap maximum benefits, Mr Mutwa plans to carry out more research. One of the biggest challenges that he anticipates is convincing Kenyans on the advantages of consuming cactus products.Â He hopes that communities in arid areas will soon start earning a living from cultivating the plant.