A single masters degree has delivered a way of turning the vilified cactus plant into a possible ingredient of key household foods as a Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology graduate now builds a name in making juices, concentrates, jam, yoghurts and wine from the plant, while seeking to tap more farmers in arid areas where the tree thrives to exploit it commercially.
Nelson Mutwa now taking Master of Science degree first noticed the unexploited potentially of the vast growing cacti as a third year student at the same university taking food science. On a field trip he noticed swathes of land where no other crop could flourish were heavily surrounded by cacti. By then he was only studying the plant as part of his class project but the more he thought of it the more it dawned on him that the plant could actually turn lives around for arid and semi arid farmers. “They cry about barren land, nothing grows there. But there has to be an economical use to anything in the ecosystem, at least I believe so and I knew this one was no different,” said Mutwa in an earlier interview.
With extensive research and laboratory analysis he has now managed to produce a host of items fit for human consumption and now hopes to work with farmers on various value addition ventures. wants to invest more in research on the plant to help people understand and exploit its commercial value.
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 as he seeks accreditation to get the cacti products to the market.
“Its a tall order in Kenya to try and convince people of benefits of something they are not used to but am ready for that. They, both farmers and consumers, have got to start appreciating the immense benefits most of the plants they ignore possess,” he said.
This discovery is among those that the judging panel at the ongoing Nairobi International Trade Fair used in picking JKUAT as as the best University stand scoring 92 percent in a contest that attracted four other Universities including historical giant the University of Nairobi.
Mutwa's discovery is among discoveries that are now working in favour of farmers who have long vilified it as an invasive species. Only recently scientists started working with pastoralists long buffeted by drought in domesticating the plant after realizing that the plant can serve as an excellent source of water and nutrition in harsh conditions as it produces a large quantity of green forage throughout the year if properly managed.
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.
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.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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