Enset - The ‘False Banana’ as Food Security

George Jacob is communications officer with Self Help Development International. Previously he worked as a journalist, sub-editor and news editor with an Irish newspaper group, before joining Self Help in 2003.

The contributions and work of Self Help staff, Hailu Gebre Marium (Project Director, Sodo, Ethiopia), Mesay Kassaye (Project Director, Dodota, Ethiopia) and Workicho Jatano (Planning Officer, Ethiopia) are gratefully acknowledged.

This article describes Self Help Development International's experiences of using the staple crop, Enset, in their programming in Ethiopia, and the potential it holds for improving food security in drought affected areas.

Processing of Enset is usually a collective effort by local women

Self Help Development International has gone a significant distance towards assisting tens of thousands of Ethiopian farmers to achieving food security, since they began promoting the introduction of the resourceful Enset plant in their project areas in the country's southern region. Although the dull, grey coloured bread or porridge produced from the fermented plant can be stodgy and unpalatable to western tastes, Enset has been having a far-reaching impact on the lives of rural Ethiopians for generations. Prompted by uneven and erratic rainfall in its project areas, Self Help set out to search for alternative 'drought resistant' crops to promote, and identified Enset as an option. Research into the crop showed that its high moisture carrying capacity and resulting durability meant it could help to ensure food security in drought prone areas.

Enset - what is it?

Also known as "false banana" due to its striking resemblance to the banana plant, Enset (Ensete Scitamineae) is a traditional staple crop in many parts of densely populated south and south-western Ethiopia. Records suggest that Enset has been grown in Ethiopia for more than 10,000 years. Indigenous hunter/gatherers of southern Ethiopia are thought to have been the first to cultivate Enset, and later introduced it to the Cushitic-speaking people of the northern highlands, only for it to be replaced by cerealbased crops due to the migration of the Semitic people. Enset is virtually unknown as a foodstuff outside Ethiopia and in western countries, variants are often grown as ornamental garden plants. The root of the plant provides food in the form of starch, the stem is used to produce a coarse fibre, and the leaves are fed to cattle, whose manure is in turn used to fertilise the plant. Although Enset is a protein-poor crop, its deep roots give it a greater resilience to drought than other cereal crops and consequently, a greater degree of food security to those who grow it.

Development workers have found that there are other significant benefits too, not least of which is the contribution of the Enset plant to sustainable farming. Soil erosion as a result of Enset cultivation is minimal. In fact, in Enset plantation areas, native soil has been altered for the better due to the long-term application of manure, natural mulching of leaf and stem residues, the rainfall capture from the plant leaves, and the resulting soil moisture conservation and reduced run-off when compared to bareearth farming. Enset plants, which are traditionally grown in small plantations adjacent to homesteads, can grow to a height of six metres, and thus provide valuable windbreaks and shade from direct sunlight. Because of its large leafy fronds, it is also a good plant to inter-crop with coffee, potato and other food crops, which benefit from shady growing conditions.

Manual processing using traditional bladed wooden instruments

The major food products obtained from the Enset plant are kocho, bulla and amicho, all of which are simple to produce once the plant is harvested, and can be stored for long periods without spoiling. Kocho is a bulky, chewy, fermented starch bread which is made from a mixture of the decorticated leaf sheaths and grated root. Combined with Ethiopia's spicy kitfo minced meat, it is now a required dish in virtually all restaurants in the country - Addis Ababa included. The best quality Enset food is bulla, obtained mainly from fully matured plants. Bulla can be prepared as a pancake, porridge and dumpling. Amicho is the boiled Enset root. The root is boiled and consumed in a manner similar to that of other root and tuber crops.

Use of Enset in programming

In order to introduce the crop to the new areas, Self Help established demonstration plots on a small scale, in conjunction with Ethiopia's Agricultural Research Institute in the Marako, Sodo and Dodota project areas. Over a period, the crop performance was monitored and assessed. Farmers in the locality were given the opportunity to visit demonstration sites and see for themselves the potential of Enset and its many uses. Following these initial demonstrations, contact farmers from amongst those interested were selected. These farmers were provided with the necessary seed stock, along with practical training on the growth of Enset in their region. Their plots, in turn, became demonstration sites visited by farmers in their locality. A certain proportion of seedlings was made available via contact farmers, as a way of getting their interested neighbour started with the crop. Revolving seed fund mechanisms of this kind are a feature of many of Self Help's agricultural development activities.

Constraints

Self Help Development Agency is an Irish-based development agency, involved in the implementation of long-term development projects in Africa. The agency has field offices in Ethiopia, Malawi, Eritrea, Kenya and Uganda.

There have been obstacles facing those engaged in promoting the propagation of Enset, the most fundamental being it takes three to five years for the plant to achieve maturity. While a five year old plant can yield 40 kg of food, farmers who harvest after a single year can expect a yield of just one kg from the pseudostem - the bowl of the tree which is processed for food. Although it is estimated that there are currently upwards of 10 million people in southern Ethiopia consuming Enset in their diet, there are historic and cultural reasons why others in the country do not. During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1975), the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture launched major initiatives to increase food production. The emperor gave strict instructions to focus on cereal crops and income-generating crops, such as coffee, while the Enset plant was ignored. The situation for Enset did not improve under the subsequent Socialist Derg regime (1975-1991), whose research projects had insufficient funds, and did not examine the potential of a crop.

There have been cultural barriers to the popularity of Enset too. Many urban Ethiopians regard a crop, which is used by southerners for everything from food, bedding and clothing to house building and fodder, as little more than a peasant food.

A number of factors have acted to change this perception, however, and market forces - which have seen the price of Enset remain stable while cereal grain prices have climbed -has been a significant one. Not to be under-estimated, either, has been the realisation that famine can, and has been, averted at times of drought, in areas where the Enset crop is being grown and processed by rural communities.

The future of Enset

Enset crops shading coffee plants

There is a concern in Ethiopia that stocks of Enset have been depleted. In many parts of the country, it seems that the Enset plantations have not recovered from the harvesting of young immature plants which occurred during the 1980's, when hundreds of thousands of people from northern Ethiopia were displaced to the south of the country - and required Enset for their very survival. However, according to Self Help's African director, Dr. Awole Mela, Enset has, on balance, been hugely valuable to their sustainable rural development work in Southern Ethiopia. Not only has it given rural householders a greater level of food security, it has provided valuable shade for the growing of other crops, and has also helped to reverse soil degradation in otherwise vulnerable areas. Upwards of 80,000 farmers in this project area are now successfully growing the crop.

A 1997 publication, produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in collaboration with the Awassa Agricultural Research Centre "The Tree Against Hunger," has done much to raise awareness of the potential and future prospects of Enset, both in Ethiopia and elsewhere. In the same year as this was published, the Ethiopian government formally recognised the importance of the crop to the people of Southern Ethiopia, and declared Enset 'a national crop' worthy of significant research and development funding.

For further details, contact: George Jacob, Self Help Development International, Hacketstown, Co. Carlow, Ireland.
Tel: +353 (0)59 6471175, Fax: +353 (0)59 6471292,
email: george@selfhelp.ie
web: http://www.selfhelp.ie

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Reference this page

George Jacob (2004). Enset - The ‘False Banana’ as Food Security. Field Exchange 22, July 2004. p2. www.ennonline.net/fex/22/enset