The Opuntia cactus in Kenya has become a thorn in the side for many residents as it slowly chokes their livelihoods.
With thick leafless and fleshy stems, the Opuntia cactus, which is covered in prickly sharp spines, has invaded thousands of hectares of grazing lands in arid and semi-arid parts of northern Kenya.
The plant, which cannot be eaten by camels, cows, goats or other livestock, spreads fast across the land taking up any water that could be used by natural vegetation, denying livestock nutritious pasture.
Its needle-like spines also kill other vegetation, a defensive mechanism that the cacti have to protect themselves.
“They will cling onto another plant and use it to grow, they will then kill the plant and grow to maturity and spread all over the area,” said Benjamin Kambi, a resident from the Loisaba area in the Laikipia county.
The 33-year-old man was up and about looking for pasture for his 29 goats and 13 sheep.
“It never used to be like this; 15 years ago, the plant was there but not in this intensity, now wherever we go, it is there, we don’t have anywhere to get pasture.”
Across the land the cacti can be spotted as far as the eye can see, vehicles are not spared from the prickly thorn of them as they grow close to main roads and often scratch the paint job off vehicles.
Threaten Food Security
Opuntia, commonly called prickly pear, is one of the most widespread and naturalized plants in the arid and semi-arid areas of Kenya, with extreme effects on rural livelihoods and the environment.
The plant, which depletes soil and water resources, and reduces the diversity of plants and animals has also threatened food security. It has been linked to livestock deaths, reduced forage, interference with grazing practices, increased costs of management, and reduced livestock yields.
Making Money From Invasive Cactus
Joseph Letunyoi, a Kenyan farmer from the Laikipia permaculture center, urged the youth to harvest the invasive plant and cash in on it.
Letunyoi is among Kenyans who are harvesting the plant and minting money from products that they make from it.
When processed, the cacti can produce fruit juice for home consumption, lotions, soaps, and many more products.