There is a great potential to better utilize prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica L., locally known as "Beles"), as a source of food and fodder in the semiarid parts of Northern Ethiopia. The plant grows in the marginalized and drought affected areas of the Eastern and Southern zones of Tigray region in Northern Ethiopia. The rural communities particularly in the Eastern and Southern zones of the region are highly dependent on Opuntia for household consumption and livestock feed, especially during longer drought periods. As other crops are not able to thrive in the harsh environmental conditions, Opuntia in particular is considered as a robust and thus lifesaving crop. Its importance comes from its unique potential to tolerate long periods of drought, poor soil and high temperature. The plant is used both as staple food for domestic use and for generating additional income for the rural poor communities. The plant has diversified local and industrial importance, such as health drinks, fish feed, nutraceuticals, nutraceuticals (natural ingredients and health-promoting foods), nutritional food, baby foods, livestock fodder, and other medicinal importance. There are several untapped possibilities for development of innovative products using this plant which could be an opportunity to improve the livelihood of the rural people in the arid region.
Constraints to the development of the Opuntia for rural development:
The rural communities in the project area have major constraints to meet the National Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). Some of the constraints are lack of knowledge and skills of local communities in processing and creation of added value agricultural products, lack of investment in processing infrastructure / technology, lack of strategic marketing linkages to traders and processing companies, lack of modern post-harvest handling technology and preservation of agricultural products which lead to high production loss.
The project will establish a processing center as a pilot plant in order to better make use of both Opuntia fruits and the pads (cladodes). Different food and feed products with longer shelf life will be trialled and marketed. Building on experience from other countries with a long tradition of processing Opuntia and from leading agricultural research institutes, the project will empower youth and women associations for collection, postharvest handling, hygienic food processing and marketing. This approach will provide poor communities with income generation activities and contributing to food security strategy. On top of that, plantation of Opuntia in the degraded dry lands can help to mitigate land degradation and thus combat the ongoing desertification in the region.
ICC will be involved in capacity building and project monitoring and evaluation. ICC will be involved in website hosting and management as well as in organizing training and scientific workshops at national or regional scale up on the completion of the project.