Converting cactus into renewable energy
In the 1940s, colonial administrators brought a decorative cactus to Kenya. While the opuntia ficus was appreciated for its juicy fruits and ability to act as a barrier, in the past decade this plant has devastated regions of Kenya such as Laikipia.
Since the cactus is not native to Kenya and has no natural predators, it has invaded land that has typically been used by pastoralist tribes like the Maasai. Climate change issues such as prolonged droughts have only made the cactus flourish even more in this already arid region. With the lack of rains, the sheep and goats that the Maasai herd have been eating the cactus due to an absence of other plants to eat. The thorns prick at the mouths and stomachs of the animals, which kills them. Since the people in this region depend solely on pastoralism for their livelihoods, the cactus has been particularly devastating for the community.
Previous methods to combat the cactus have been unsuccessful. The pastoralists tried cutting it, but it simply grows back again. They also tried using a bio control that the government provided them with, but it has been taking ages to show results.
Cactigas combats the invasive cactus + other climate challenges
Francis Merinyi is a pastoralist who studied environmental sciences at the University of Nairobi. He therefore experienced firsthand the damage caused by the opuntia ficus while also gaining an academic background in renewable energies. With that, he eventually came up with an idea to convert the cactus into biogas and organic fertilizer. Thus Cactigas was born.
Cactigas confronts a number of climate change issues apart from the invasive cactus. Most people in Merinyi’s community use polluting fuels for cooking, such as wood. These cooking methods are very harmful for a variety of reasons: they lead to deforestation, cause severe health problems and even death due to indoor air pollution, and even contribute to gender inequality (women are typically the ones who spend hours per day fetching wood- time that could be spent in more productive activities). The biogas that Cactigas produces is thus much safer for human health, and creating the gas is a carbon-neutral process (unlike traditional fossil fuels).
Additionally, the organic fertilizer created from the cactus can improve the land that the cattle grazes on and also be sold to farmers in Laikipia.
Cactigas’s business ventures
Cactigas is a new company, having been started in June of 2018 and admitted into KCIC around the same time. While Merinyi’s initial intention was not to start a business- he simply wanted to help his community-, he saw that turning his idea into a business was the best way to be able to scale up and disseminate the product.
Since joining KCIC, the enterprise has already benefited from being able to participate in the ClimateLaunchpad green business idea competition. The competition was hosted at KCIC and also included an intense, 2-day boot camp and mentoring on how to launch a startup.
"ClimateLaunchpad was a great experience," Merinyi says. "I was thankful for the high-level training I receieved as well as the opportunity to interact with the other participants and network with people in the industry."
Recently, the county government of Laikipia has decided to partner with Merinyi. As the county is very serious about combating the opuntia ficus, they are giving him a KSh.200,000 grant to upscale his work. Merinyi envisions that through this grant and assistance from KCIC, he can start a fertilizer processing center in Laikipia to specifically employ youth and support women. In doing so, he hopes to bring even more benefits to the community.
By Alise Brillault