Enset: the “Tree Against Hunger”

By Daniel Kane

Often confused with its yellow, more widely known cousin, enset (Ensete ventricosum) is a member of the banana family (Musaceae). Unlike its cousin it’s not grown for its fruit, but instead for the starchy pulp in its stem and its corm, a below-ground part of the stem similar to a potato. And though it’s grown in some parts of the world as an ornamental, enset has been a staple food in Ethiopia for roughly 5000 years.

Cultivated for nearly 5000 years, enset has helped many Ethiopians weather famine in bad years. (Photo credit: Alex Mayehug)

Growing up to ten meters high and one meter in diameter, enset yields an incredible amount of food in every plant. But harvesting it is a laborious process that involves prying the entire plant out of the ground. Once harvested, the plant can be used to make several different kinds of foods.

Kocho is made by scraping the starchy pulp out and fermenting it with yeast, traditionally in a dug-out pit. The resulting mixture is used to make porridge or a fermented bread similar to the Ethiopian favorite injera. Bulla is similarly extracted but, instead of being fermented, it is dehydrated to make a flour that can be stored for extended periods of time. Amicho is the corm boiled and served like potatoes or other root vegetables.

None of these foods are particularly high in nutrients, but they are very calorie-dense, forming the basis of many people’s diets.

Highly adapted to Ethiopia’s highlands, enset is capable of weathering drought and has helped many Ethiopians survive famine in years of bad weather. In fact a group of researchers from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science went so far as to call it the “Tree Against Hunger” in a 1997 report.

Despite its apparent usefulness, it’s received little research or extension support, and many farmers now overlook enset in favor of introduced cereal crops or yams. But enset is still a staple for many of Ethiopia’s peoples, including the Gurage, who grow it in large plantations.

With nearly a 5000 year history of cultivation, enset is a distinctly Ethiopian crop that could be used to increase the country’s food security.

Daniel Kane is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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