Enset, the 'false banana'

The food security crop of the Southern Ethiopian highlands

Enset is a multipurpose crop (food, fodder, fiber and other by-products) cultivated on small-holder subsistence farms in the Southern Ethiopian highlands. While wild African enset plants are found along the whole rift valley, its cultivation and use is restricted to Ethiopia.

As the name ‘false banana’ suggests, enset is a close relative of the banana, both in the Musaceae family, with similar morphological and physiological traits. Enset however is not cultivated for its fruits - which are inedible - but for its starchy underground corm and pseudostem base. The inner portion of the corm of young plants can be boiled and eaten in a similar way as potatoes. The corm and pseudostem of more mature plants are grated and fermented and used to make a flatbread called ‘kocho’, or porridge.

Image by Guy Blomme

A food security crop

Enset is a major food security crop for communities of the Ethiopian highlands, because of its reliable availability, source of carbohydrates, environmental resilience and limited requirement for off-farm resources.

The plant takes a relatively long time to mature – 5-12 years depending on local conditions – and is preferably harvested at this stage when biomass accumulation in the corm and pseudostem is at its highest level. However, enset can be harvested at any growth stage throughout the year. In times of need, households can thus rely on enset to fulfill their nutritional requirements. Its derived fermented food products can also be stored for long periods.

The crop is grown over a relatively wide range of agro-ecological conditions and shows tolerance to a range of environmental stresses including both drought and heavy rains or flooding. The genetic diversity of enset species has also been preserved, and farmers maintain a high diversity of enset landraces. The various landraces can present a variety of environmental tolerances and traits, reinforcing the resilience of the crop and minimizing the risk of total crop failure for the household.

Characterizing enset production systems

Enset is mostly cultivated on small-holder subsistence farms on which farmers grow a selection of co-staples and a variety of annual crops to sustain the dietary needs of the family, often integrating cash crops [e.g. Khat] intended for the market. As such, these farms are a form of mixed subsistence farming systems, providing a substantial level of self-reliance and a sustainable livelihood for these communities.

To characterize the diversity in enset production systems, Bioversity International conducted extensive household surveys across the enset-growing belt of Ethiopia. These surveys allow for an evaluation of the importance of enset, co-staples and annual crops for household subsistence, the characterization of different farm management and processing practices, and an assessment of the constraints enset farmers face in a changing climate.

Several publications upcoming!

Elizabeth Kearsley, PhD.Eng.
Partner, Researcher