Eastern Cape’s prickly informal economy

Every year cactuses provides a major income boost for unemployed people who forage and sell the fruit

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Photo of two men
Zolile Jacobs (left) selling his prickly pears in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth. Photo: Joseph Chirume

The opuntia cactus may be an invasive alien plant, originally grown to form impenetrable fences, but when the cactuses come into fruit in the Eastern Cape, it is a major income boost for unemployed people who forage and sell the prickly pears.

The iitolofiya, as they are locally known, ripen from November to May.

Monica Marais of Motherwell, Port Elizabeth, wakes up very early in the morning to take a bus ten kilometres out of town on the Uitenhage Road (R344) to where the cactuses grow. “The earlier the better because I must have enough time to select the ripe and quality fruits to please my regular clients. I also need time to rub off the prickly surface [spines] of the cactus pears,” she says.

Marais uses a very long wooden stick with a wire hook on the end to harvest the prickly pears and collects them in plastic buckets.

“I have been selling cactus pears for the past ten years,” she says. She sells a 20-litre bucket of pears for R75 or a five-litre bucket for R15. On a good day she can earn R400.

She lives with her three sons and her disabled mother. She is the sole breadwinner. Her business requires no capital and the fruits grow wild on municipal land.

She says all the sellers agree on a price. “We don’t fight over customers because each person has their place on the side the road.”

Zolile Jacobs sells prickly pears in Motherwell at the junction of sections NU11 and NU13. “I was working for a brick manufacturing company … I was retrenched three years ago and my neighbours encouraged me to join them in selling cactus pears,” she says.

On a busy day, Jacobs says he can earn R300, but when it is raining motorists don’t stop. “Municipal by-laws don’t allow us to construct shelters on the side of roads,” he says.

Another trader, who did not want her name published, forages prickly pears along the Addo Road (R335).

She said, “I have colleagues who own bakkies and their businesses are running fast and smooth. They are making more money than us. Most of them are selling cactus pears in upmarket areas like Green Acres, Mount Pleasant, Walmer Town, Summerstrand, Kabega Park … areas frequented by rich people and tourists.”

Ardonis Mukape, who lives in Ikamvelihle, sells the fruit from a wheelbarrow as he goes from door to door. He was taught to collect and sell cactus pears by his grandmother five years ago when her eyesight and health deteriorated.

He says some people look down on him, but he intends to study agriculture. “I was very hesitant and shy at first. This all changed after the money started to flow … On a good day I can go home with R500,” he says.

A spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, Mthubanzi Mniki, said: “The municipality supports self generating projects by residents as this improves their lives. We also have an office for small businesses at Kwantu Towers, 7th floor, where they can go and get assistance and advice on how to run their businesses.”

TOPICS:  Economy Unemployment

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