How Ethiopia’s ‘fake banana’ could be the crop to tackle climate change

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The enset plant – commonly known as the false banana – feeds some 20 million people in the highlands of Ethiopia. But its potential is much greater. Drought-resistant and able to grow year-round, scientists believe enset could be the superfood the continent needs to tackle climate change and diversify our reliance on wheat, rice and maize.

The enset plant (Enset ventricosum) grows mainly in the highlands of southwestern Ethiopia.

It is a close relative of the banana. But unlike its cousin, the fruit is inedible.

What locals have harvested and eaten for centuries comes from the bulb (root) of the tree and the inside of its trunk.

They extract the starchy pulp and use it to make porridge and bread.

In the village of Dorze, women have the heavy task of extracting the pulp from the stem and roots. Every part of the enset plant, other than the fruit, is used.

“The pulp is cooked and the leaves are fed to the animals,” says Dekenech Chalaro, 50. “Then the fibers are used to make twine and hang from roofs. We also extract a juice called bulla, which is given to pregnant women,” she told RFI’s Noé Hochet-Bodin.

An enset farm in Gamo Gofa, Zada ​​town, Ethiopia. © Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

In the mountainous region around Dorze, some 4,000 km southwest of the capital Addis, everyone has enset trees in their garden or backyard. The plants can grow up to 10m tall, and 60 of them can feed a family of five for a year.

Abraham Gelaye started cultivating the tree five years ago.

“Enset is much easier to grow than other crops,” he told RFI. “You just have to dig a hole and plant an enset root. Then it spreads and grows on its own. Once harvested, I can make around 50 euros for it, whether I sell it as bread, bulla or something else.

Big potential

Recent research has revealed some of the extraordinary properties of enset as a modern day crop.

In addition to being an important source of starch, fiber, medicine and animal fodder, as well as its uses in roofing and packaging, the plant has good drought resistance, is perennial and can be harvested. at any time of the year.

Additionally, while the plant is only cultivated in the southwestern region of Ethiopia, researchers have found that it grows wild in valleys and river gorges as far south as South Africa. .

These wild relatives are not considered edible, but the fact that they grow so far south suggests that the plant can tolerate a much wider range of terrains and climates.

A number of scientists are working to see how it could be produced more widely across the continent, particularly in neighboring countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.

Professor Addisu Fekadu of Arba Minch University has embarked on modernizing centuries-old cultivation techniques, including the fermentation process.

“We have introduced a new type of modern processing tools and modern fermentation technologies to improve yields,” he told RFI. “If we pay more attention to the enset plant, I believe it may have the potential to feed 100 million people worldwide over the next 40 years.”

Enset plants are easy to grow, can reach up to 10m and produce 70kg of food
Enset plants are easy to grow, can reach up to 10m and produce 70kg of food ©

“Tree Against Hunger”

Addisu has created a highly versatile flour from enset and believes the plant has enormous potential to boost food security on a continent where 21% of the population is undernourished, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.

Enset has been nicknamed the “hunger tree” because it continues to grow until you harvest it.

“It’s climate-resistant and you can’t find such a high yield in any other crop than enset,” Addisu said, insisting we must seek “new solutions to world hunger.”

The impact of the war in Ukraine on reduced grain exports has also highlighted the importance of diversifying the world’s staple crops of wheat, rice and maize.

If more research is funded, enset could be added to the mix and provide a more stable super-crop.

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Teresa H. Sadler