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A local answer to famine

Enset is an important buffer against famine in Ethiopia (George Jacob, SHDI)
Enset is an important buffer against famine in Ethiopia
George Jacob, SHDI

Amid the famines that ravaged Ethiopia in the 1980s, a striking picture began to emerge as communities in the southern highlands were scarcely affected by the onset of hunger. One reason for their endurance appears to have been the presence of a hardy root crop known as enset (Ensete ventricosum). Otherwise known as the 'false banana' - due to its close resemblance to the domesticated banana - enset boasts very good drought resistance, and can be stored for up to twenty years. These valued qualities have attracted much attention from development organisations in recent years, leading to its increased cultivation across Ethiopia from the traditional areas in the south and southwest. Self Help Development International (SHDI) is one such organisation, set up to empower small-scale farmers and to increase their food security.

Weighing up the pros and cons

Enset is unusual because it can be harvested at any time of the year, and continues to grow over several seasons. The plant takes between three to five years to mature, but this, it is argued, encourages longer-term thinking in those who grow it, a mindset that can ultimately reduce the occurrence of famine because it urges preparation. Waiting for the crop to mature is not always practical however, and the problem of slow maturity has been exacerbated by the lack of improvement of enset varieties and cultivation methods. Enset is laborious to process, with traditional foods such as bulla requiring involved preparation. The pulp from the root and leaves is concentrated into a white powder, tightly packed with enset leaves, fermented, and made into porridge, or baked into bread (kocho). The introduction of early maturing cereals such as maize, and neglect by policy makers keen to promote other cash crops such as coffee, have also meant that enset has in the past not received the attention it perhaps deserves.

Harvesting enset in Ethiopia (George Jacob, SHDI)
Harvesting enset in Ethiopia
George Jacob, SHDI

Besides providing basic food needs during drought and famine, enset produces better yields in marginal soils than annual crops. In addition, the plants can grow up to six metres in height, providing shade and a wind-buffer for other crops, particularly coffee, and maintaining soil conditions by preventing erosion. It also provides a valued livestock feed and its fibre is used for binding and building, amongst other uses. It is these qualities that SHDI and other organisations have successfully promoted to local communities in new areas. For instance, enset has been promoted and monitored in three project areas of Marako, Dodota and the low-lying Sodo Rift valley, countering the belief that the plant can grow only at high altitudes. Demonstration plots have been set up to interest farmers in the crop's potential.

Greater expectations

Farmers most convinced of the attributes offered by Enset are selected as 'contact farmers', acting as local extension workers by providing seed and practical information to others in the area. Habte Agrow is a 'model farmer', promoted from contact farmer, to teach and train 20 other contact farmers in seed distribution, multiplication and agro-forestry practices. He is one of roughly 1,000 model farmers in project areas, distributing the seeds as part of his business. "My income has increased five-fold since I became involved with the project," Habte says. "If you had visited my land five years ago, you would have seen a different situation."

Model farmers advise that enset is an integral part of a broader agroforestry system, which is creating income opportunities and steering production away from over reliance on staple crops, such as maize and teff. Many farmers are now intercropping protein-poor enset with chickpea or Haricot beans, or with cash crops such as coffee.

Enset plantations in the south of Ethiopia (George Jacob, SHDI)
Enset plantations in the south of Ethiopia
George Jacob, SHDI

The popularity of enset is also spreading to urban areas. Previously regarded as a 'peasant's crop', enset is now a required dish in many restaurants throughout the country, including in Addis Ababa, where it is combined with a spicy mince meat known as kitfo. The processing techniques have also been made easier. SHDI and the Wolleta Institute, have introduced new squeezing technology to make the process of extracting pulp from the root and leaves less time-consuming.

More than 80,000 farmers are now cultivating enset in SDHI project areas and, according to Dr. Awole Mela, SHDI's African Director, the initiative has improved household food security. Since formal recognition of the crop by the government in 1997, when it was declared a 'national crop', enset's potential to reduce famine has become a key focus of research. If improved cultivation methods can also be identified, Ethiopia's 'false banana' could become an important weapon in East Africa's fight against famine.

With contributions from: George Jacob, Communications Officer, Self Help International.

Date published: January 2007


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