Not so long ago, in the heart of Laikipia County, lay a sprawling forest that had once thrived in vibrant health.

A lush, green expanse spanning over 30,000 hectares, this forest was a haven for biodiversity and a source of life for the pastoralist communities that called it home.

However, a shadow has fallen over this once-thriving ecosystem, a shadow cast by a relentless invader- Opuntia stricta, a cactus species that knew no bounds.

The invasive plant choked the life out of more than half of the forest. Its relentless spread, combined with massive overgrazing by the surrounding communities, was turning this once-verdant paradise into a barren wasteland.

For the pastoralist communities, this meant more than just the degradation of their cherished landscape; it struck at the heart of their livelihoods, threatening their very existence.

PS Forestry Mugambi Gitonga and FAO Rep during a visit in Laikipia. Image:BDA.
PS Forestry Mugambi Gitonga and FAO Rep during a visit in Laikipia. Image:BDA.

But hope was on the horizon as a beacon of light emerged in the form of a Ksh607 million Restoration Initiative, funded by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and executed by a coalition of organizations including FAO, Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI), Kenya Forest Service, Laikipia Wildlife Trust, and the Northern Rangelands Trust.

Over 1,500 hectares of Mukogodo land now bore witness to the transformation, as the restoration efforts breathed new life into the landscape.

The key was collaboration with the local communities. A 500-hectare parcel of land, encircled by an electric fence, stood as a symbol of progress. Here, the invasive Opuntia was mechanically removed, while semi-circular bunds acted as mini catchment areas, nurturing the growth of grass once more.

However, the battle against Opuntia was not the only front on which Laikipia County fought for its future.

Even though at one point the cacti are being uprooted, they have found value elsewhere. Laikipia Permaculture Centre Trust, a daring venture valued at Ksh20 million, is using the once thought to be a bad crop, to generate income.

This bio-enterprise is a typical manifestation of human ingenuity. It has harnessed the very cactus that threatened the land, transforming Opuntia fruits into wine and juice, and crafting soap and other products from aloe.

These items found eager buyers both locally and in international markets, with an impressive annual turnover of Ksh7 million.

PS Forestry Mugambi Gitonga and FAO Rep view value addition products made out of cactus in Laikipia. Image:BDA.
PS Forestry Mugambi Gitonga and FAO Rep view value addition products made out of cactus in Laikipia. Image:BDA.

Seeing the potential for growth, Laikipia County set its sights on integrating the bio-enterprise into its county aggregation and industrial park.

The goal is to expand the market for these value-added products, not only securing a sustainable future for the project but also providing an alternative source of income for the pastoral communities who have suffered for so long.

As the landscape restoration project continued to take shape and the bio-enterprise flourished, stakeholders began exploring new frontiers.

They sought to secure land for the cultivation of Opuntia, with the aim of guaranteeing the long-term sustainability of the initiative.

In this journey of transformation, Laikipia County has emerged as a beacon of hope, proving that with determination, innovation, and collaboration, even the thorniest of challenges could be overcome, and a green future could be reclaimed from the jaws of adversity.

news@businessdayafrica.org