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Groups harness highly nutritive but destructive opuntia species

Florence Larpei, food processing manager at Laikipia Permaculture Centre, displays products  made from the invasive opuntia cactus. PHOTO | sarah ooko
Florence Larpei, food processing manager at Laikipia Permaculture Centre, displays products made from the invasive opuntia cactus. PHOTO | sarah ooko  

To control and curtail the spread of opuntia that is wiping away grazing lands and harming livestock in Northern Kenya, an organisation has decided to harness its highly nutritive qualities.

The enterprise, known as Laikipia Permaculture Centre (LPC) works with many Maasai women groups—from areas worst hit by the invasive plant to make juice, jam and wine from opuntia.

Aside from LPC, these products are sold at selected restaurants like Dorman’s Coffee Shops and at organic markets in Nairobi. The profits are then shared with community members who use it to finance household needs or expenditures that can no longer be solely met by income from livestock production solely.

“This troublesome plant has invaded our land. It’s everywhere, destroying our environment and killing livestock. So we came up with an innovative way that enables communities to control and manage it while at the same time earning something in the process,” Florence Larpei, food processing manager at LPC told the Business Daily.

Opuntia is largely spread through seeds that are contained in the plant’s red fruit. “By harvesting the fruit, crashing it, and using it to make different food products, we destroy the seeds completely to prevent the plant from multiplying further.”

The enterprise, which was founded in 2014, also seeks to purchase a processing machine that will be used to produce oil through pressing of the opuntia seed.

“The opuntia fruit is actually nutritious and tasty. But we are against its rapid spread because the plant is destroying grazing lands and killing livestock which is the main source of livelihood here,” said Ms Larpei.

Studies show that the fruit is rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants that boost immunity and help in the prevention of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer and type 2 diabetes.

But before consumption, the pines in the outer cover of the fruit which usually destroy the digestive systems of livestock need to be removed lest they also harm human beings.

The project is supplementing other opuntia control and eradication initiatives such as manual uprooting and the use of bacteria that ravishes the plant.

According to Ms Larpei, the broader goal is to improve the livelihoods of vulnerable communities in Laikipia County through environmentally friendly enterprises.

“Once opuntia is eradicated, we will begin introducing other beneficial plants like moringa that are profitable and don’t destroy grazing lands or affect livestock. So, the enterprise won’t die.”

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