The Ethiopian Banana That Flourishes In Drought and Heat

ADDIS ABABA- At first glance, Ensete ventricosum may look like a banana plant, with huge green fronds and a towering, thick brown pseudostem. But if you peel these orange, banana-cousin fruits, watch out: Instead of a pale, mushy interior, this banana-like fruit consists almost entirely of large, teeth-cracking, black seeds.

E. ventricosum, colloquially known as “enset,” has gained such a reputation for its misleading fruit that it is often called “the false banana.”

And yet, enset feeds 20 million people in Ethiopia. Those who cultivate this banana cousin often grow dozens of these plants in fields very close to their homes. When the time comes to harvest an enset plant—usually when the plant is six or seven years old and just before it flowers—a farmer will cut it down, chop up part of the root, scrape out the inside of the stem, and massage these plant chunks by hand into a pulp. This pulp is then left to ferment inside of a leaf-lined pit. The final product is called “kocho,” and it can be served as a porridge-like dish, with meat or milk, or pounded into a kind of bread.

One of the most interesting and important facts surrounding enset’s odd and complex transformation is the fact that most of the people who prepare enset and sell enset are women.  Women often determine which varieties of enset are planted, and they are usually the ones who sell kocho at the market. This makes this crop incredibly important to livelihoods, especially to families where women are the head of the household.

Agricultural and aid organizations often push crops such as maize and wheat when it comes to small-scale farms, but in a country frequently in the news for drought, these crops often don’t fare well.  However, some believe that enset is drought-resistant. With the climate increasingly changing in East Africa, and potentially becoming much drier, enset could come to provide nutrition for many more farmers in Ethiopia.

Dr. Paul Wilkin is the Head of Natural Capital and Plant Health at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom. He is currently leading a research project, looking into enset genetics and biodiversity.

This research is especially important, because there is much still left unknown about enset. There are many reasons for this, including the remoteness of the mountain habitat where enset natively grows and the limited scope of agricultural research in the region in general. Wilkin is all too aware of this. “Historically, there has been work on enset in Ethiopia, but it’s generally been quite piecemeal. People have looked at one part of the range or another part of the range or a small number of landraces.”  Enset researchers estimate Ethiopian farmers may be growing several hundred of these landraces, or varieties, of enset.

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