In parts of Laikipia County, the cactus plant, Opuntia Stricta variety, is everywhere. It dots the sides of the roads and sprouts in the vast lands of the semi-arid region. To many quarters, it’s invasive, unwanted, yet painfully hard to kill.
Reports suggest that the cactus has encroached upon a significant portion of communal grazing fields, potentially claiming as much as 50-75 per cent of these lands. The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed it more than a decade ago among the 100 worst invasive alien species.
To the local community, the cactus tree is not just an unwelcome intruder; it’s a relentless adversary. Stories abound of the loss of livestock after injecting the indigestible seeds, which make animals unable to feed, resulting in emaciation and, ultimately, death. Some livestock go blind as the fine spines get lodged in the eyes. Some quarters say the plant was introduced as an ornamental hedging plant by a colonial administrator in the 1950s and was propagated mainly by birds, elephants, and olive baboons. Some members of the communities call it “ imatundai”, a local name for fruit.
Growing up, Vincent Muhoro,23, remembers the presence of it in his home. Come shine come rain, the prickly bear fruit did not dry out. When the grazing fields were patch dry and drought ravished the region, the cactus didn’t budge.
“During the long and dry seasons, it concerned me that we did not have the typical fruit trees in our homestead. I wondered why this plant was evergreen and a nuisance to my family. The land we had acquired with hopes of cultivation had transformed into a landscape dominated by cactus trees. I wondered why the pink fruits it bore were off-limits. I would later learn that it was nutritious but equally dangerous due to the prickly thorns. It became a newfound hobby whenever I went out herding. I sometimes crushed it and tried to extract juice from it, after all, there were no other fruits to eat,” he reflects.
Over time, Vincent saw the disheartening toll exacted on his family’s livestock as they grazed on the cactus-riddled lands. He also observed how the relentless encroachment of this invasive species steadily overtook their once-fertile farming grounds.
“My fervent mission became to bring attention to this pressing issue that was not only my family’s worry but that of the entire community. I also felt compelled to share about the solutions that were cropping up. This is what steered my career path, ultimately guiding me into journalism,” he says.
The 23-year-old would later learn something else—the environmental cost of fast fashion. According to the UN, the fashion industry accounts for 8-10 per cent of global carbon emissions and nearly 20 per cent of wastewater and 1.92 million tonnes of textile waste is produced every year. A key contributor to this menace is the leather industry because of the chemical processes involved, water usage and waste generation.
“These statistics coupled with the experiences in my region fostered me to come up with a social enterprise, Dunia Bora, loosely translated to “a better world.”
Through training, mentorship and grants from organisations such as Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens and Ashoka Green Changemakers, Vincent is on a quest to create products centred on sustainable fashion by making natural leather.
When processed, cacti can yield a versatile range of products, including home-consumable fruit juice, lotions, soaps, garments, footwear and accessories.
“I figured that by utilising eco-friendly materials, we can be part of the changemakers who are trying to reduce the fashion’s environmental footprints,” he offers.
With a team of young people, hired on a need-be basis, the social entrepreneur harvests cactus on the communal land or from farmers’ farms and turns them into leather sheets.
“Cactus leather is a soft but durable material that mimics its animal counterpart in feel but also requires less water than traditional leather processes. We harvest about 40 kilogrammes on a daily basis and have a collection centre that also serves as our makeshift office. We are currently at the pre-revenue stage and sending out our samples to those in the crafts industry for customising into various products, from bags to accessories. Recently, we got a potential client who intends to use it for thermal insulation.
“We start by sourcing materials from farmers and the communal land then extract the fibres from the cactus leaves. This step is crucial in ensuring that the raw materials are suitable for further processing,” he explains.
Once the fibres are extracted, they are pulped into a workable form that can be used in sheet formation. “They then go through processes like dyeing to make them resemble traditional leather. Notably, we have collaborated with Cornell Sustainability Consultants at Cornell University whose expertise and guidance have been instrumental in developing our final product. We harvest and run the tests in Kenya then send formulas to them which are worked on using the right machinery.”
Vincent offers that they took this approach due to a lack of resources and machinery required in the process.
“I recently transitioned to doing this on a full-time basis and our goal is to create a sustainable, regenerative model that not only provides eco-friendly fashion but also uplifts local communities. We are currently working on a pricing model so we can buy the raw materials directly from farmers,” he says.