Best practices in Senegal

Photo credit: Ilonka DE ROOIJ

Introduction of new vegetables and fruit species, thanks to free seeds from the SEEDS FOR FOOD action


Growing food crops in container to alleviate drought

by Willem Van Cotthem (Ghent University, Belgium)

Nobody will deny that growing food crops in container has a lot of advantages.  Saving a lot of water is one of the most important ones.

That’s what I was thinking of when I received these nice photos of my friends Ilonka DE ROOIJ and Rafael VAN BOGAERT, enthusiast managers of an interesting project in Casamance, Senegal.

Not only convinced of the positive effect of container gardening on limitation of water consumption, but also of the introduction of some drought-tolerant plant species, like the spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis), they are introducing in Casamance a number of new technologies, e.g. a desalinisation technology developed by Rafael himself, sack gardening, water saving, the “Seeds for Food” action, etc. …

Please have a look at their photos and get convinced of the importance of these “best practices”.  They deserve to be multiplied in all the drylands to alleviate drought and to combat desertification (saving water and producing food and fodder).

Casamance, Senegal 2016-02 – Potatoes growing in plastic bags, burried in the dry soil – Photo credit: Ilonka DE ROOIJ 1798243_1044496495589181_177397747462836296_n
Casamance, Senegal 2016-02 – Young plants of the spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis), each grown from one single pad – Photo credit Ilonka DE ROOIJ – 12710859_1044496492255848_6834224328241385187_o.jpg
Casamance, Senegal 2016-02 – The young Opuntias start flowering and will soon produce juicy fruits – Photo Ilonka DE ROOIJ 11083706_1044496555589175_1884473580418555260_o.jpg

A Great Green Cactus Wall



In 2014, I had the pleasure to post on this blog my ideas concerning opportunities to:

Build Great Green Cactus Walls

One can read this text by clicking on the link above.

The Spanish translation of this text was produced by Fabio Ruiz (with my sincere gratitude for his friendly gesture).

See the translation below.

Opuntia: A real success story for rural development at larger scale in the drylands

Spineless varieties of Opuntia can be very rewarding

by Willem Van Cotthem (University of Ghent, Belgium)

Photo WVC: 2000-06-BRASIL-OPUNTIA01 copy.jpg
Photo WVC: 2000-06-BRASIL-OPUNTIA01 copy.jpg – Nice Opuntia plantation, excellent yield in a short period

Planting spineless varieties of Opuntia can be very rewarding, not only to combat desertification, but also to produce fodder for animals. These varieties are growing quickly with a minimum of water in the drylands, like the ones in the very dry Nordeste of Brasil (see pictures).

Photo WVC: 2000-06-BRASIL-OPUNTIA02.jpg
Photo WVC: 2000-06-BRASIL-OPUNTIA02.jpg – Rows of cacti contribute to limit soil erosion

Cacti normally have a wide appeal to growers of ornamental plants, but they have only few economic uses. However, many cacti produce edible fleshy fruits (raw, jam, syrup). Some species are used in living hedges or even for furniture. Commercial plantations of the “prickly pear” Opuntia are found in Brasil, Mexico and California.

Photo WVC: 2000-06-BRASIL-OPUNTIA06.jpg
Photo WVC: 2000-06-BRASIL-OPUNTIA06.jpg – Rows on the contour lines

The disk- or racketlike, superposed parts of the Opuntia stems can be used as fodder. Goats, sheep and cows eat the fresh disks, cut into slices. One can also have the sliced disks sundried, grinded to flour and mixed with a bit of water for animal consumption.

Photo WVC: 2000-06-BRASIL-OPUNTIA07.jpg
Photo WVC: 2000-06-BRASIL-OPUNTIA07.jpg – Many new disks are developed and can be harvested soon

Opuntia plantations on contour lines help to limit erosion on slopes. Regular harvesting of newly formed disks is easy. Feeding Opuntiaslices or flour significantly enhances meat and milk production.

I recommend to apply these Opuntia plantations as a real success story for rural development at larger scale in the drylands. It is a sustainable method to combat desertification, to limit soil erosion, to limit water consumption for irrigation, to improve environmental conditions and to easily improve sustainable fodder production, leading to alleviate hunger and poverty.

And finally every dryland country will get the spineless Opuntia ficus-indica

Photo credit: Fast Co Exist


California Has No Water, So It Might Be Time To Start Farming Cactus

Livestock can eat the drought-tolerant cactus, and we can eat the livestock, and everyone can be happy.

One designer thinks it might be time to try focusing on something else: Cactus.
One designer thinks it might be time to try focusing on something else: Cactus.

As California lurches through a fourth year of drought, it’s still the country’s top producer of thirsty crops like almonds, tomatoes, and nectarines. One designer thinks it might be time to try focusing on something else: Cactus.

In a conceptual project called Grassroots Cactivism, winner of Archinect’s Dry Futures contest, Ali Chen envisions a model for a massive cactus farm that would help produce livestock feed. Because cacti also happen to work as natural water filters, Chen paired the farm with a water treatment plant.

“It was quite an amazing coincidence to find that cactus is not only drought tolerant and edible, but that it has the ability to clean water,” she says. “It was only logical and efficient to combine these two functions into one facility to minimize transportation costs and fuel.”

Since a surprisingly large amount of water on California farms goes to crops like alfalfa that are used for livestock feed (this is a large part of the reason why a single burger uses660 gallons of water), Chen wanted to find a replacement. Cactus, it turns out, can serve as a healthy substitute for at least part of a cow’s meal, and the plant is already in use in some other drought-prone regions, like Texas.

Read the full article: Fast Co Exist

Cacti for biogas fermentation in semi-arid regions


Cacti: the new energy crop?


The importance of water-use efficient Agave and Opuntia


Photo WVC – 2000-06-BRASIL-OPUNTIA 01

Huge plantations of Opuntia cactus

Development and use of bioenergy feedstocks for semi-arid and arid lands

by John C. CushmanSarah C. DavisXiaohan Yang and Anne M. Borland


Global climate change is predicted to increase heat, drought, and soil-drying conditions, and thereby increase crop sensitivity to water vapour pressure deficit, resulting in productivity losses. Increasing competition between agricultural freshwater use and municipal or industrial uses suggest that crops with greater heat and drought durability and greater water-use efficiency will be crucial for sustainable biomass production systems in the future.

Agave (Agavaceae) and Opuntia (Cactaceae) represent highly water-use efficient bioenergy crops that could diversify bioenergy feedstock supply yet preserve or expand feedstock production into semi-arid, abandoned, or degraded agricultural lands, and reclaim drylands.

Agave and Opuntia are crassulacean acid metabolism species that can achieve high water-use efficiencies and grow in water-limited areas with insufficient precipitation to support traditional C3 or C4bioenergy crops.

Both Agave and Opuntia have the potential to produce above-ground biomass rivalling that of C3 and C4 crops under optimal growing conditions. The low lignin and high amorphous cellulose contents of Agave and Opuntia lignocellulosic biomass will be less recalcitrant to deconstruction than traditional feedstocks, as confirmed by pretreatments that improve saccharification of Agave.

Refined environmental productivity indices and geographical information systems modelling have provided estimates of Agave and Opuntia biomass productivity and terrestrial sequestration of atmospheric CO2; however, the accuracy of such modelling efforts can be improved through the expansion of field trials in diverse geographical settings. Lastly, life cycle analysis indicates that Agave would have productivity, life cycle energy, and greenhouse gas balances comparable or superior to those of traditional bioenergy feedstocks, but would be far more water-use efficient.

See the text: Journal of Experimental Botany

An invasive species in Kenya, Opuntia (Prickly Pear)

Photo credit: SciDevNet

Copyright: CABI

Sap-sucking insects may combat Kenyan cactus plague

“So when times are good it will continue to displace local plants and make more valuable pasture inaccessible.” – Arne Witt, CABI-Africa

Speed read

  • Prickly pear cactus is an invasive plant that threatens grazing areas in Kenya
  • A trial now shows that a species of bug can be used to control the cactus
  • But further safety testing and approvals are needed before rolling it out

An insect that sucks the sap out of cactus plants has been trialled in East Africa to contain the spread of an invasive cactus species that threatens local grazing areas.

The cochineal bug, known as dudu in Swahili, for biological control has been released on farmland in Kenya’s Laikipia region, which is used by Maasai for livestock herding. The trial showed that the bug feeds exclusively on the Opuntia stricta cactus, better known as prickly pear, which has invaded grasslands and drives out local plants used to feed cattle.

The Maasai community in Laikipia partnered with the Centre for Agriculture Biosciences International (CABI) to conduct the trial and halt the spread of the cactus. According to CABI, an non-profit science organisation from the United Kingdom, the trial, which concluded last month, has shown that the dudu bug will not be harmful to native and non-harmful imported plants in the region.

“The cochineal has not been found on other cactus species such as Austrocylindropuntia subulata and Cereus jamacaru that are growing in association with Opuntia stricta,” says Arne Witt, the coordinator of the invasive species programme at CABI-Africa. “In a nutshell, there is no risk.”

The prickly pear cactus was introduced in Kenya during colonial times as an ornamental plant capable of living in arid regions. Since then, the plant has colonised thousands of acres of fragile rangelands in northern Kenya, putting at risk the livelihood of animal herders.

According to CABI the cactus is also suspected to have caused the death of baby elephants after they consumed its fruit, meaning it poses a threat to local wildlife and related income from tourism.

Read the full article: SciDevNet


COMMENT OF Willem Van Cotthem

The prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is an invasive species.  Due to its hard spines it has almost no predators and known methods to destroy it are expensive.

On the contrary, the spineless variety (Opuntia ficus-indica var.inermis) is a widely cultivated plant in Central and South America, edible for men and animals.

Therefore, describing the prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) as a noxious invasive species is a generalisation that is far too negative for its edible and ornamental spineless variety.  Moreover, the prickly pear can also be used to produce an interesting biofuel.

Enabling women to combine farming with bringing up children and running household

Photo credit: ICARDA

Cactus thrives on very little water and does not require frequent labor inputs. 

Female farmers show the way

In parts of Egypt’s arid New Lands, female farmers are choosing to grow prickly pear, a type of cactus, rather than more conventional crops such as wheat. Prickly pear is better suited to desert conditions than most of the crops promoted by the Egyptian government. It also generates an income which helps women to pay for their children’s education. Against a backdrop of climate change and associated water shortages, ICARDA researchers have identified ways that the government can support female farmers in the New Lands and promote the cultivation of prickly pear and other drought-tolerant crops throughout desert settlements.


Due to climate change and population growth in the Nile Basin, Egypt is set to face severe shortages of irrigation and drinking water in coming years – it is predicted that by 2050, Egypt will need to use around 50 per cent of the Nile’s water for drinking alone. At the same time, up to 15 per cent of agricultural land in the fertile Nile delta could be inundated as sea levels rise.

Since the 1980s, the Egyptian government has been resettling farmers in desert regions, the so-called ‘New Lands’, in response to land and water shortages and as a strategy for boosting food production. Each settler is provided with a plot of land, a shared irrigation pump, and a house. ICARDA researchers have been investigating how female settlers have adapted to farming in these arid conditions.


Female farmers in some New Lands settlements grow spineless prickly pear, Opuntia ficus-indica f. inermis, to supply the tourist sector in Cairo and Alexandria. This is partly a response to their marginalization from support programs, such as agricultural extension activities, which promote more conventional cash crops such as wheat.

In fact, prickly pear suits desert conditions better than other produce grown in Egypt, such as fruit trees. The cactus thrives on very little water and does not require frequent labor inputs. Because of these characteristics, it has sometimes been dismissed as a ‘lazy farmers’ crop. These same features, however, enable women in the New Lands to combine farming with bringing up their children and running their households, which are often located some distance from their farms. The cash they earn from selling prickly pear fruits has helped them to fund their children’s schooling and provide for their daughters’ marriages.



For more information:

Najjar, D. (2015). Women’s contributions to climate change adaptation in Egypt’s Mubarak Resettlement Scheme through cactus cultivation and adjusted irrigation. In Buechler, S and Hanson A.S. (Eds). A Political Ecology of Women, Water and Global Environmental Change. Chapter 8.

Read the full article: ICARDA

A tool to combat desertification and hunger, spineless Opuntia

 Photo credit: World Organic News

Photo credit: IFAD

Opuntia spp: an efficient tool to combat desertification


Reasons for the increased importance of cacti in arid zones

Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia) in plantation -
Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia) in plantation –

The increased importance of cacti, such as Opuntia species, in arid zones is because of their ability to

  • (i) grow in “deserts” and their drought tolerance;
  • (ii) produce forage, fruit, and other useful products; and
  • (iii) mitigate long-term degradation of ecologically fragile environments.

Read the full article: World Organic News


REMARK OF mrjonmoore

Useful but can become invasive!!! Beware! mrjonmoore)


COMMENT OF PROF.DR. WILLEM VAN COTTHEM (University of Ghent, Belgium)

What could ever be the harm of a spineless cactus like Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis, cultivated over thousands of hectares in Middle and South America for the production of food (nopales), fodder and biofuel ?

Let the spineless Opuntia be invasive and get more food and fodder for free.  Beware of the negative critics and accept the benefits of large-scale plantations for combating desertification, for limiting erosion, for enhancing food and fodder security.  Facts can’t be denied.


Desertification in Brazil

Photo credit: Google

Paisagem do nordeste brasileiro

Identifying areas susceptible to desertification in the Brazilian northeast

by Vieira, R. M. S. P., Tomasella, J., Alvalá, R. C. S., Sestini, M. F., Affonso, A. G., Rodriguez, D. A., Barbosa, A. A., Cunha, A. P. M. A., Valles, G. F., Crepani, E., de Oliveira, S. B. P., de Souza, M. S. B., Calil, P. M., de Carvalho, M. A., Valeriano, D. M., Campello, F. C. B., and Santana, M. O.

in Solid Earth, 6, 347-360, doi:10.5194/se-6-347-2015, 2015.


Opuntia (nopales) plantation in the Nordeste of Brazil (Photo WVC 2000)
Opuntia (nopales) plantation in the Nordeste of Brazil (Photo WVC 2000)

Approximately 57% of the Brazilian northeast region is recognized as semi-arid land and has been undergoing intense land use processes in the last decades, which have resulted in severe degradation of its natural assets. Therefore, the objective of this study is to identify the areas that are susceptible to desertification in this region based on the 11 influencing factors of desertification (pedology, geology, geomorphology, topography data, land use and land cover change, aridity index, livestock density, rural population density, fire hot spot density, human development index, conservation units), which were simulated for two different periods: 2000 and 2010.

Each indicator were assigned weights ranging from 1 to 2 (representing the best and the worst conditions), representing classes indicating low, moderate and high susceptibility to desertification.

The results indicate that 94% of the Brazilian northeast region is under moderate to high susceptibility to desertification. The areas that were susceptible to soil desertification increased by approximately 4.6% (83.4 km2) from 2000 to 2010.

The implementation of the methodology provides the technical basis for decision-making that involves mitigating actions and the first comprehensive national assessment within the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification framework.

See the text: Solid Earth

Spineless Opuntia in Senegal

Photo credit: Ilonka De Rooij


ilonka DE ROOIJ sent a nice photo of a series of cactus pads growing at their development project in Senegal.  Please register that this variety of the prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis) has no sharp spines, which make it quite easy to handle.

Recently we posted on our Facebook-page of the “Opuntia Ambassadors” ( a message of Anke Zürn, who shared an article of the FAO entitled “TRADITIONAL CROP OF THE MONTH”. This article was shared by somewhat 600 people and a lot of positive comments were posted.

Photo credit: Ilonka DE ROOIJ (Senegal).
Photo credit: Ilonka DE ROOIJ (Senegal).

The observation that Opuntia stricta got out of control in Australia, invading tens of thousands of hectares of rangeland, particularly in Queensland. It was eventually controlled by introducing the moth Cactoblastis cactorum to become a classic example for effective biological control” can’t be seen as valid for this spineless variety of Opuntia ficus-indica, as this variety is fully edible (pads and fruits for food and animal feed). Therefore, it will remain constantly and completely under control.

We wish our friends Ilonka and Rafaël a well-merited success.

A plant with universal value : the prickly pear (Opuntia)

Photo credit: FAO

Cactus pear

Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian fig, mission cactus, prickly pear, Barbary fig, tunas, palma forrageira, among others)

Traditional Crop of the Month


Where it is found

The centre of origin and domestication is Mexico but the plant is now found in the wild in several countries including the USA, across the Mediterranean, Angola, Australia, Kenya, and South Africa.

Spineless variety of the prickly pear cactus -
Spineless variety of the prickly pear cactus –

How to eat it

Nopalitos with Tomatoes and Onions

1 lb nopalitos (cactus pear branches that have been stripped of spines, cleaned, and chopped); 1 tablespoon olive oil; 2 large cloves garlic, minced; half a red onion, roughly chopped; 1 jalapeño pepper, stem and seeds removed, chopped; 1 medium tomato, roughly chopped; quarter of a teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste; salt and pepper to taste.

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) in a large sauté pan on medium high heat. Add red onion, garlic and jalapeño. Cook for a minute, stirring occasionally, then add the nopalitos and continue cooking for 15 minutes. Then add the chopped tomato and cumin and simmer until the vegetables are cooked. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately with corn tortillas. Serves 4.

Read the full article: FAO

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