By Ahmed Albakri, Bothinah Albakri, Sharafuddin A. Saleh and Frank van Steenbergen
The cactus is a miracle plant. It grows in arid places where no other fruit ‘fears to thread’ and during the most severe droughts, the cactus’ dry pads are the lifeline of cattle which have no other means of sustenance. Geographically speaking, cacti represent a regular feature of dry landscapes from Mexico to Morocco.
For a long time, the Indian fig cactus (opuntia ficus-indica) was considered a wild crop, best utilized as a ‘living fence’. In Yemen, the cactus was long most popular as a way to defend a house.
Yet in a few decades, this has all changed: opuntia cactus fruits are recognized for the delicacy of their taste; in the last ten years, the juice has found its way onto supermarket shelves throughout the globe.
In Yemen, commercial cactus cultivation started 40 years ago and was very much the result of a single man’s efforts. Having worked for nearly twenty years abroad in commercial agriculture, this man – Ahmed Motahar – was seeking new farming opportunities upon his return from abroad to Yemen in 1967. He settled on the cactus, it being most suitable plant in a natural environment characterized by water scarcity.
In Ghayman in Sana’a governorate’s Sanhal District, he started a first farm of cultivated fig cacti, which at the time was unheard of, as previously the best such fruits had been collected in the wild. Motahar also went a step further and set up a market chain: peeling the finely-thorned fruits and selling them in one-kilogram plastic bags at his own street-side outlets. The slogans he used were very original; for example: ‘The fig with the Yemeni tie and belt is better than honey and cheaper than onions.’
As profits were high, new tracts of land were developed in Ghayman for the fig cactus. The cultivation of cactus also spread beyond Ghayman, with other farmers imitating Ahmed Motahar’s cultivation techniques.
In addition, new products were developed: juices, jams and the packaging of the fresh fruit in appealing boxes. A market for the cactus seeds developed, for fodder from the pads and for compost from the resulting waste material.
In the last ten years, the ‘dry’ fig cactus has gained in popularity. It has replaced qat in Ghayman: more than 80% of the cultivated land there is now devoted to the fig cactus. Ahmed Motahar’s village is now one of the bright spots – and with it, the suggestion that a shift to crops which demand low amounts of water can yield high returns.