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Creating opportunity out of a problem: the hidden cotton plant

Blogpost by Celestine Kilongosi

Calotropis procera tree is one among the many invasive plants in Kajiado County, Kenya. However, we should not view its growth as an anchor but an opportunity for growth both for the community members and the country in general. Less than 600 mm of rainfall is experienced in this area in a year leading to a high competition of the little water available for the plants, animals (livestock and wildlife) and the community members. The people of Kajiado have been coping with the little pastures that the nature offers since they are mainly pastoralists. Hence, they depend on much of the water for the growth of their pastures. However, uninvited guests are now making the water scarcity worse. Invasive plant species grow here, turning the land into a hell with their useless branches.

Calotropis procera plant is a tall plant with soft woody stems and grows only in the seasonally flooded parts in the arid and semi-arid areas. Its leaves are very broad and oval in shape with large veins across. The flowers are either white or purple in colour. As Magdaline, a teacher in Kajiado area explained, “when it is cut open it produces a white liquid which is very poisonous to the eye and often leads in blindness to both community members and the livestock. It is also neither edible for the humans nor for the livestock. The plant is considered a disaster: it takes up so much water that it inhibits the growth of any other plant. This in turn makes the land bare and increases desertification”.

But can the curse of the unwelcome guest be turned around? Uninvited guests don’t always have negative intentions. As Magdaline also explained, “Calotropis procera has some medicinal uses though: its leaves are warmed and pressed on the breasts of nursing mothers to reduce swelling and its root infusion is a remedy for coughs and snake bites”. In addition, this plant may be a good source of high quality cotton which can be harvested and used in the textile industries. Calotropis procera plant has bolls that contain high quality cotton which if harvested wet can be dried and taken to the factories for processing. But where is the cotton?

The potential of the Calotropis procera plant for cotton making has not been established but there is a promise. At the moment, the plant is only cut down and used for firewood in the area. Therefore, an intensive study on its potential for cotton production and its wider use is important. The cotton from this plant can be exported and hence help in alleviating poverty in the areas where it grows by increasing their income. Its usage is also a plus for Kenya because it could now depend on some cotton of its own rather than depending on imported lint for the spinning and textile industries.