Kenyan youths turn invasive plant into lucrative business

Not long ago, residents of Kenya’s Tana River District in Coast Province considered the mathenge shrub a curse. But over the past year, youths in the area have the turned the despised plant into a desired food source and a basis of economic opportunities.

  • The Biskidera Jabesa Youth Group runs a mathenge flour mill in Hola village, turning an invasive shrub into an employment opportunity. [Bosire Boniface/Sabahi]
  • Mathenge seedpods can be crushed into flour or made into sweet syrup. [Bosire Boniface/Sabahi]

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The plant, known by its scientific name Prosopis juliflora, was introduced to Kenya in 1973 from Brazil to stop desertification in arid and semi-arid areas of the country.

But more than 20 years later, mathenge has become a nightmare for residents in Kenya’s arid regions who say the weed has overgrown the local landscape and continues to spread at an alarming rate.

Wajir District National Environmental Management Authority Co-ordinator Sheikh Abdikadir Ahmed said the plant establishes impenetrable thickets in grazing fields, farmland and along rivers.

“The plant’s disadvantage is that it inhibits the growth of any other plants where it is growing,” Ahmed told Sabahi. It is also dangerous because of its poisonous thorn that can be harmful to humans and livestock, he said.

Although the government has attempted to stop the spread of mathenge plants by spraying herbicide and using them for firewood, these efforts have been largely ineffective, he said.

Other attempts to control the plant have also failed. For example, the government embarked on several profit-making schemes to address the issue, such as encouraging residents to burn the plant for charcoal, or using the plant in biomass facilities to generate electricity.

“No country where the plant has invaded has successfully eradicated it because of the high financial costs involved,” Ahmed said. He said the best solution is for people living in plant-infested areas to seek a profit from its presence.

Turning misery into opportunity

Finally, a collaborative initiative between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Kenya Drylands Livestock Development Programme (KDLDP) has been proven successful.

The KDLDP partnered with the Biskidera Jabesa Youth Group to train youths in Hola village to exploit mathenge for economic gains. Over the past year, members of the group have been processing the seeds of the mathenge shrub to make flour and syrup.

“The flour and juice extraction is one such programme that can greatly benefit the community especially with the scarcity of jobs,” Ahmed said.

KDLDP Co-ordinator Victor Nzai said Kenya has the ability tackle poverty and food insecurity by exploiting available resources. “What can be conceived as a misery can be turned into an opportunity,” he said.

“We are profiting economically from this detested plant and the children love the juice extracted from the plant’s fruit,” said Biskidera Jabesa Youth Group chairman Hussein Godana. “Two years ago, we were among the people who considered the plant a curse because of its invasive nature. That has changed for us now. It is a blessing.”

Gradually, the whole community will embrace the plant’s positive aspects and it may become a cash crop in the area, he said.

The Biskidera Jabesa Youth Group runs a flour mill that grinds the dry mathenge seedpods into powder. “We did a little adjustment to the original mill used to grind maize to fit the grinding of the plant’s seeds,” he said.

The flour from the plant’s seeds is used to make bread known as chapatti, Hola village chief Bakari Mambo told Sabahi. He said people tasting mathenge flour for the first time are advised to mix it with wheat flour so they can gradually adapt to the new taste.

“If you eat bread made from mathenge seed flour, you cannot have enough of it,” he said. “It is naturally sugary. We have been eating this for more than a year and we have not complained of upset stomachs or complications.”

Mambo said people can also eat the raw seeds, which taste sweet.

“When we are out in the field grazing goats, we eat the seeds,” Omari Mambo, a 13-year-old native of Hola, told Sabahi.

He also said he looks forward to drinking a cup of the sweet mathenge juice his parents give him when he comes home.

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