Yoseph Moges, 23, was a waiter until two weeks ago, when he started selling cactus fruit on the streets of Addis Abeba. He is usually found in Atkilt Terra, Piazza, pushing a wheelbarrow full of beles, the local name for the fruit.
Every two days he purchases 50Kg, paying between 3.50 Br and five Birr a kilogramme. He then spends his days roaming around the neighbourhood looking for customers. He only ventures out to the rest of the city if business in Atkilt Terra is slow.
He sells a kilo of beles for 10 Br. His supplier, Mikielle Teklay, a wholesaler in the neighbourhood, distributes the fruit to street vendors like Yoseph.
Mikielle, who came from Adigrat, in the Tigray region, 898kms North of Addis Abeba, claims he is one of the two wholesalers who introduced beles to Addis Abebans, when he started stocking it three years ago. His brother, who still lives in Tigray, sends him 90 wooden crates of cactus fruit every two days, loaded on an Isuzu pickup truck.
Beles from Adigrat is considered high quality, producing the sweetest fruit in the country. He buys one wooden crate of cactus fruit, containing between 45 to 50Kg, for 70 Br from farmers in the region, he told Fortune.
Although he is a pioneer in the sale of the fruit in the city, Mikielle claims that more wholesalers stocking beles from other regions have joined the market since its early days. This has reduced the profits he enjoyed two years ago.
The supply of the fruit in Addis Abeba seems monopolised by street vendors. After visiting numerous supermarkets and fruit stalls, Fortune only found one, in Piazza, which had it in stock. The owner, Tewodros Getachew, says he included the fruit in his store last year, after an Atkilt Terra wholesaler approached him.
The initial agreement was that Tewodros would just stock the fruit, but all the profit would go to the wholesaler. This arrangement was mutually beneficial, since Tewodros incurred no costs – if the fruit did not sell, the wholesaler took the financial hit. On the other hand, if the demand was promising, the wholesaler would secure a regular buyer in Tewodros. Within the first three sales, the fruit vendor decided to make regular purchases from the wholesaler. He now restocks on a weekly basis, purchasing 40Kg at a time and reselling for 10Br a Kg.
Although the fruit is new to Addis Abeba, it is ubiquitous in Tigray, where it has long been used as a food source as well as cattle feed. A study published in the Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO) newsletter, Cactusnet, in May 2010, stated that 6.74pc of Tigray is covered by cactus plant. A total of 30,000ha is used for cactus cultivation by farmers, with an additional 300,000ha being covered with wild cactus. The Tigray Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) gives different figures, however. They state that Tigray has a total coverage of 320,000ha of beles, of which 120,000ha is occupied by farmers, according to Mizan Amare, crop research director at the Institute.
The cactus plant, which can bear up to 300 fruits on each plant, of which there could be 3,000 to 4,000 on one hectare, is particularly popular during periods of drought. This is because it thrives in arid conditions, sustaining the population until conditions improve. This has earned it such appellations as “life-saving crop” and “fruit of the dark days”.
The importance it holds in Tigray’s agrarian circles is aptly described by a local proverb – “a farmer without beles is like a stream without water”.
A study conducted by the FAO in 2008 showed that 25pc of the income of farmers in Tigray is generated from the sale of cactus. While cactus is also found in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country, it is not held in the same esteem as in the North.
In Tigray, the fruit is finally ready for consumption during the long rainy season – from June through mid-September. This is just in time for farmers to sell it and use the proceeds to cover their children’s educational needs. The children, who are in the midst of their annual school break, also help to sell the fruit that will keep them in school the following year. It also provides a good job opportunity for local women.
Back in Addis Abeba, Yoseph’s customers, mostly pedestrians, tend to buy one or two fruits at a time, paying up to two Birr a beles. Others purchase as much as 15 Kg at once. While Fortune was talking to Yoseph, a customer, Semira Ahmed, bought four kilogrammes for 40 Br. Semira, who was observing Ramadan, said she broke her fast every evening with cactus fruit, after she observed other families using it during the fasting season. She found that the fruit helps her to avoid gastric issues. Like his customers, Yoseph also enjoys his merchandise, eating as many as 20 fruits a day.
While its popularity in the city is growing, many Addis Abebans are still unfamiliar with the fruit. Tewodros, the fruit stall owner, states most of his customers are originally from Tigray, and selling to Addis Ababans is more difficult.
“I have to persuade them even to taste it, if I want them to buy,” he said.
Some see it in the wheelbarrows and ask to taste it out of curiosity. In fact, Fortune met Tagay Hussein as he was enjoying his first taste of the fruit. Tagay, who had previously heard of beles, declared he found it “delicious.”
In addition to consuming it directly, cactus fruit can be prepared in a variety of ways, such as in beverages, vegetarian dishes, jam and even in cosmetics and drugs. The leaves are also used for human consumption, as a salad.
However, while cactus fruit-based recipes are popular in countries like Mexico, this trend is yet to reach even Tigray, where it is most consumed, let alone Addis Abeba, a city still getting acquainted with this exotic fruit. The chefs Fortune contacted stated their knowledge does not extend beyond the basic step of juicing the fruit. Chef Yonas Tefera, a teacher at Bienvenido Catering & Tourism Institute, says that although he has never prepared a cactus fruit recipe, he is aware of its nutritional value and its use in juice, fruit salad and syrups. The same idea was echoed by Giordana Kebedom, producer of the Giordana’s Kitchen Show on EBS television.
For a while it had seemed like cactus would have more uses, when an investor tried to export the cochineal insect that feeds on the plant. This insect is used to make red dye. The export effort did not last long, however, because of the damage caused on the cactus while breeding the insect, according to Mizan. The flowers of the plant were also, a year ago, exported to Europe for cosmetics production, but that too was suspended, as it came at the expense of the fruit.