Food insecurity is one of the most devastating crises facing the world today. Prices of staple food in Kenya have sky-rocketed, not forgetting the famine that often affects the northern region. In order to combat food insecurity, we need to be open to new sources of food as a method of adaptation.
One of this food sources in consideration is the Opuntia species (Commonly known as the Prickly Pear). This cactus plant was introduced to Kenya more than four decades ago by foreign ranchers. It was mainly grown for its ornamental value and used as a live fence.
Prickly Pear Cactus as a ‘problem plant’
Over the past years, the prickly pear cactus has been known for its aggression on pastoral lands. Due to its vigorous growth, the availability of pastures and indigenous plants is reduced to the extent of affecting meat and milk production. This plant has also been labelled as ‘killer cacti, having caused lethal infections to wild and domestic animals due to the glochids (*the tiny spikes found on the pads and fruits of the plant).
The Ministry of Environment in partnership with the local community, CABI and NEMA released a super-bug (Cochineal) to get rid of the prickly pear cactus population in Laikipia County. Other methods such as mechanical control had been applied but have proved ineffective.
Exploring its full potential
Farmers from dry parts of the world are tapping into the positive characteristics of prickly pear cantus for economic and nutritional benefits. It contains vitamin A and C, fibre, antioxidants and carotenoids. In Mexico, where the plant originates from, various recipes have been developed over time to prepare the pads in a delicacy known as nopales or nopalitos (for the small pads). They can be boiled, grilled, pickled, steamed or prepared in salads.
Agricultural companies such as Dry Lands Farming Company (California) grow these prickly cacti for their fruits. After harvesting them, the fruits are processed to produce juice, jam and syrup. If fermented and distilled, the juice produces spirits, which can be used to make margaritas and other alcoholic cocktails.
Prickly cactus is also famous for its medicinal value. Traditionally in Mexico, it has been used in the treatment of illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes type II, asthma and rheumatic pain. Modern medicine continues to explore the properties that are believed to cure diabetes and control cholesterol.
It is, however, worth noting that the availability and acceptability of this plant as a fodder crop and as a source of food, increases dependency, therefore limiting other food crops. Growing of this plant is therefore recommended for arid areas. In arid communities where it is being grown, we would expect living standards to improve, since many farmers would be able to sell the fruits and cater to their household needs.
A farm owner can also sell surplus pads to cosmetic companies to be used in the processing of hair and beauty products. Prickly pear is used in the manufacture of shampoos, oils, lip balms, cream and masks. Profits from such enterprises could help a family afford balanced meals.
A lot of education still needs to be done on the management, benefits and the preparation of prickly pear as food and fodder. Perhaps, this could be one of the ways to combat the food crisis in Kenya.