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Pastoralists milk wine from invasive cactus weed

Laikipia Permaculture Centre has partnered with women’s group to domesticate the cursed weed and ensure they earn a living by making juice, wine, yoghurt and even jam from it 

Harriet James @harriet86jim

In the 1950s, the Opuntia Stricta plant was introduced in Laikipia North constituency as a flower in the District Commissioner’s office. It has been more of a curse.

In this semi-arid region whose populace relies on livestock for a living, pastoralists are overcoming their pain from this invasive cactus, which has resulted in the death of many animals. Its glochids (a barbed bristle or thorn on the areole of some cacti) get lodged in their throats, stomachs or intestines of the animals.

If they get stuck in the cattle’s mouths, the animal develops sores and eventually starves to death. Furthermore, the cactus has displaced pastoralists and hurt them economically by forcing them to move into areas where they can feed their animals.

But now, this is all behind them. What was regarded as a menace has been transformed into a business venture. Having been born in the area, Joseph Lentunyoi, bore the brunt of this invasive cactus and this drove him to employ the permaculture approach to deal with the menace.

He founded the Laikipia Permaculture Centre and has partnered with the Twala Women’s group in Mukogodo, Doldol to domesticate this rogue plant and turned it into a money minter by making juice, wine, yoghurt and even jam from the cactus.  “Permaculturist believes that underneath a problem lies a solution. 

Opuntia.

I studied the cactus and found that it spreads by massive seed production and vegetative growth from its fleshy parts.  The use of fruits to produce juice, jam, wine and seeds for oil production is a direct way to control it and a sustainable solution to the weed,” he says.  

The cactus (called ikolino in Ukambani and nguna in Nakuru county)  reproduces by seed and vegetative reproduction through its leaf pads, which become displaced from the plant and grows roots. The survival and rapid spread of the drought-resistant cactus have been made easier by favourable arid conditions in the vast area.

Groups of women now harvest the fruits, wash and boil them then, later on, blend the mixture to create juice, wine, jam and oil.  “We looked for a solution to the cactus problem but couldn’t find any.

We uprooted and burnt it but it even grows on trees and on rocks. It is only recently that we began to supply its edible fruits to Laikipia Permaculture Centre,” says Priscilla Senteina, leader of Twala Women Group, one of the groups selling the purple-red fruits.

The cactus fruit has 50 seeds and at the group’s meeting point,  they have a machine that separates the seeds from the pulp. Thereafter, the fruits are washed and blended to produce a thick pulp, which is then boiled up to 70 degrees centigrade to decontaminate. When making juice, a litre of the pulp is diluted with two litres of water and then sugar is added to sweeten it.

As for the tasty wine, a litre of the pulp is diluted with three litres of water then cooled to lower the temperature to 40 degrees Celsius. Sugar and yeast are added to the mixture for fermentation.

Opuntia fruit.

The low temperatures are then maintained to activate the functioning of the enzymes in the yeast. After the one-hour process, the wine is put in jerry cans for 14 days for fermentation before it is packed for consumption.

Cacti juice

The seeds can also be pressed to get expensive oil that is employed in making cosmetics. For now, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) has given the juice a clean bill of health while the wine is awaiting certification.

A bottle of wine goes for Sh1,000. Research indicates that the fruit is rich in Vitamins C, E, K; it is also rich in Calcium, Potassium Magnesiuma and Phosphorus. “Our main aim is to help the region first to contain then help eradicate this cactus. 

We have already seen success in the wine, jam and juice.  We are now looking into seed pressing since we have established that the seeds have excellent essential oils that can be used in cosmetics and also use the fleshy pads to generate bio-fuels that can be used by the surrounding community for cooking thus conserving trees.

Then slowly introduce alternative dry lands crops into the region such as grapes and Moringa trees,” Joseph concludes.

Opuntia stricta is a large-sized species of cactus that is endemic in the subtropical and tropical coastal areas of the Americas and the Carribean. Common names include erect prickly pear and nopal restrict (Spanish). It is an erect or sprawling shrub up to two metres in height, producing lemon yellow flowers followed by purplish-red fruits. It quickly colonises hot, open environments with sandy soils.

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