Enset – the ‘False Banana’ Gives Food Security and More

The really fascinating thing about south Ethiopia is its diversity, both cultural and ecological. And the crossover between these two is agriculture. So when one moves about in the south, one encounters different agricultural systems which usually have interesting features specific to the area you are in, depending both on the cultural practices of different ethnic groups and on the local climate.

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These last few days I was lucky enough to be able to take the time to visit my in-laws in Siltie country (where my wife comes from). Siltie is an area about 200km south of Addis and about 400km north of Konso where we are based. In Siltie the crop of greatest importance is Enset ventricosum, a species endemic to South Ethiopia which has some fascinating properties making it of great interest to Permaculture applications in other areas of the world. Enset is farmed in a mixed system along with grain crops, coffee and others. It is a fascinating plant, related to and resembling the banana tree, but taller, fatter and with no bananas (which gives rise to its English language name “the false banana”).

Enset is a very tall plant. It consists entirely of soft plant material but reaches up to 12m high and the trunk (or “pseudo-stem”) can be nearly a meter thick at the base. It looks a bit like a giant extruded onion, with a big bulbous stem stretching up into a rosette of 3m long crescent shaped leaves, which reach for the sky in competition with neighbouring plants. Its main product is the starchy pith of its massive “pseudo-stem”, which is pulped and then fermented in a big bundle, buried underground for 3 to 6 months, to produce “kocho” a solid staple a bit like a heavy bread which is eaten with milk, cheese, cabbage, meat and/or coffee (which, BTW, is drunk with salt!)


The pulped starch of Enset is burried in large pits for 3 – 6 months for
fermentation to produce Kocho, a hearty food staple


Kocho, the finished product, eaten with soft cheese and cabbage

 


Baba Argha, my father in law, selects a nice young enset to dig up so we can take it back to Konso

Enset is highly drought resistant. Like the banana it is a plant that only exists in cultivation and has lost its capacity for sexual reproduction. But unlike banana, it is actually unable even to reproduce asexually without human intervention, as it does not spontaneously sucker at the base like banana does. Like woman, it is totally dependent on man for reproduction. In return however it supplies man (and woman) with perhaps the most reliable source of staple food of any cultivated crop. The huge bulk of this huge plant is composed mostly of air, then water and then fibre. If you split its leaves up, you will find it is full of cells, which are full of air and water. It is able to hold onto this water for years. If there is a drought it simply stops growing and sits tight till the rain comes back. In fact it is said to survive up to seven years without rain. You won’t get that from wheat or barley. So what you have in a stand of Enset is a food bank that can last for 7 years. They don’t need Joseph and his multi-coloured dream coat in Siltie country… that’s why they never had a famine there. Other areas could make use of this crop too… of course some do, but there are many that don’t, and in fact Konso is one of them, so bringing Enset to Konso is a nice little project that I think we can be working on.

As well as food Enset provides fibre for making ropes and mats. It also provides medicine which helps wounds and breaks to heal faster and stronger. You can get a wealth of information on the biology and cultivation practices of Enset in south Ethiopia from this article — well worth a read, if you have time.


The fibre of enset is of very high quality. It is used to make ropes and
mats and uses range from fencing to house construction, etc.

The Siltie people are the only highland ethnic group in Ethiopia who are completely Muslim. Like other Muslims in Ethiopia they are known as good traders. But unlike most other Muslims in this area, they are also great farmers. And Enset is very much the centre of the of the Silties’ daily toil on the land. It is cultivated in a mixed system, incorporating grains (wheat and barley with t’eff, maise and sorghum also incorporated at lower altitudes), coffee, ch’att (Catha edulis – a mild stimulant, which is a cash crop) and animals (cattle, sheep, goats). Also used to great effect in the area is sisal, which does not provide fibre, since all the fibre needs are fulfilled by Enset, but it makes fearsome fencing which can even keep out baboons and hyenas.


A wheat field fenced with a fearsome wall of sisal. No baboons!

The Enset is planted in dense stands, heavily manured with dung from house-hold animals, and intercropped with coffee, some herbs and in the rainy season maize too. The stands are initially very closely spaced but thinned as it grows till the spacing is at around 2m for the mature plants. My brother in law, Kadir explained to me about the fascinating way in which Enset acts as a nurse crop to bring on the coffee, which will in time replace it in patches of the stand. Enset matures in about 3 years. When it’s about a year old a coffee seedling is planted near to the base of the Enset plant. Enset will actually provide water to the coffee seedling, so that watering it is not necessary as it would be if planted in the shade of another plant! Enset is full of water. But how it gives the water to the coffee is an interesting question. Perhaps through a shared mycorrhizal association? If you don’t know what that means you better read up on it!


A young stand of enset with well established coffee

The coffee seedling will grow for 2 years in the shade of the Enset. As it approaches fruit bearing age the Enset is removed. It can be used for food and fibre, fed to animals, simply moved and re-planted in another place or used to make seedlings. This is another fascinating process. As mentioned before Enset can’t reproduce alone, despite being an asexually reproducing plant! When the plant is chopped down at the base the leaves and stem can be made use of. The stump is then dug out. Next the pith is removed, which should confuse the “meristem”. This is the where the growth of the plant originates from, where cell division occurs. When the pith is removed the meristem loses its focus point and the dividing cells, instead of dividing in a coordinated way to produce a mature plant’s continued growth, reset their behaviour to stage 1. Accordingly when the “de-pithed” stump is buried in the ground again with a healthy feeding of manure under it, it explodes into a patch up to 50 little Enset seedlings which can again be dug up and divided.


An enset mat

My in-laws own a 9 Ha plot at around 2000m altitude in rolling upland country. About 1.5ha are devoted to Enset which takes care of the family’s own food needs. The rest of the land can thus be used to generate some cash income, building materials and some variety to the diet. That is done with wheat, barley, chat and various trees and also for grazing. The Olive tree, interestingly grows in profusion in Siltie and in much of the Ethiopian highlands, however, due to the lack of a frosty winter season it produces no fruit, and hence no oil! Its wood is used like incense, a pleasant smelling smoke which repels insects. Unfortunately, Eucalyptus which wrecks the soil and causes wide-scale land degradation is nowadays planted profusely on all outlying lands in Siltie these days, as in most areas of the country. Providing a palpable alternative to Eucalyptus for straight pole construction timber which can grow quickly and not wreck the land would be a major step forwards for environmental restoration in Ethiopia. Eucalyptus was introduced into Ethiopia at the turn of the last century by the great Emperor Menelik II who was looking for a fast growing tree that could provide fire-wood for Addis Ababa’s fast growing population. It now infests most of the landscape of the country pushing out native species, poisoning the undergrowth, sucking up all the soil moisture and leaving the dehydrated ground exposed to the torrential rains which will then remove the top-soil and begin to dig ravines into the base clay. You can see it all over.

Enset on the other hand is a plant that has been in Ethiopia since pre-history. It is a plant which provides complete food security, is great for the land and gives other useful products, but has still not spread beyond its traditional areas of cultivation in the south. Why? Its use is complex and in those areas where it is not grown previously its cultivation and the preparation of its products are difficult for the uninitiated. Kocho is seen as a “country food” even “backwards” or “primitive” by many Ethiopians, and town people are inclined towards injera, the pancake like t’eff based common staple which is found across Ethiopia. T’eff is another indigenous, endemic crop which has extremely low energy content, is very labour intensive to produce and is not at all robust to droughts. Kocho on the other hand is disdained in the same way the English used to look down on potatoes as “Irish food”. Cultural barriers are perhaps the biggest challenge that one faces in trying to get real permaculture to function in Ethiopia, on any scale. However getting Enset cultivation started in Konso may be possible. The next thing to ask would be what does Konso have to contribute to Siltie. I have a few ideas on this I will tell you about later….

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13 thoughts on “Enset – the ‘False Banana’ Gives Food Security and More

  1. Now that was informative. When I google this plant I find it labeled only as “ornamental.” As if modern people are not willing to mash up and ferment stem pulp for several months in a hole in their backyard before eating it!?

    I’m not sure I understand the Eucalyptus bashing though.

  2. I read up to that part on eucalypts and laughed as i recalled what Peter Andrews said.

    Spot on David! Thanks for finding the link! Eucalypts are weeds!

    Stop planting them! It’s patriotic to grow wattle(acacia)! BUT NOT GUM TREES!

  3. I think Peter Andrews’ comments on Eucalypts are very hydro-centric, and although i agree that Eucalypts are not the most useful trees to use in parts of the landscape where re-hydration and soil-building are primary goals, i think it’s completely mis-guided and insulting to Australian biodiversity to label them wholesale as “weeds”, not to mention showing a serious lack of understanding of Australia’s ecology.

    Eucalyptus species are the cornerstone of most Australian forest ecosystems and therefore of the ecosystems to which most other Australian plants and animals have evolved in and are adapted to – our biodiversity is strongly associated with the Eucalyptus.

    The rise of the Eucalypts is suggested by Tim Flannery and others to have occurred subsequent to the arrival of the first humans in Australia – a time of dramatic climate change and species extinction – and was a symptom of the “drying out” of the continent and the increased frequency of fire. Like it or not though, this is the reality of Australia and its biodiversity.

    Anyone serious about Permaculture should respect the “Care for the Earth” ethic and acknowledge the importance of Eucalypts to the persistence of Australia’s fragile biodiversity. In relation to Permaculture design, almost every Australian property should have and love the Eucalypts in their zone 5, since chances are they represent the dominant structural life form of the local ecosystem (in forested regions).

    Broader-leaved and deciduous trees are undoubtedly more beneficial in landscapes where productivity, re-hydration, soil-building and shade are the primary objectives, and are evidently an important tool in the recovery of Australian agricultural landscapes. However, each farm has a role to play in conserving the biological heritage of this continent, and the importance of the Eucalypt in achieving this is immense.

    Like the rest of the tools in your box, Eucalypts can be friend or foe; use them wisely in your system and love them for the role they play in supporting the natural biological diversity of your land.

    Very interesting article on Enset, thank you.

  4. Surely Alex’s comment about Eucalyptus spp was in relationship to Siltie.

    Permaculturist Rosemary Morrow who is going back to Ethiopia next year to workaround Konso and I’m sure she will be interested in this info. Thanks

  5. Great article.

    I’ve seen plenty of stands of eucalyptus turn up in various places around the world and it always seems to be driven by a need for firewood.

    I read the comments by Peter Irish, and I think if you refer to Tim Flannery’s book “The Future Eaters” – which is an ecological history of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia – you’ll find that the eucalyptus species is a fairly recent dominant species in Australia. The dominance occurred as a direct consequence of human actions on the eco system and not as a result of climate change. Pretty contreversial!

    A lot of what passes for support of the eucalyptus species seems to me to be ideologically driven rather than evidence driven. Before people arc up too much, I’d also like to point out that a lot of our southern Australian rainforest trees are extremely drought hardy.

    As a bit of background I live on a forested block in the slopes around Mt Macedon in Victoria and see first hand the difficulties that surround the forest when the dominant trees are eucalypts. I’d expect that in the distant past Acacia Melanoxylon (blackwood) was the dominant tree around here and you can see where there are old stands of these trees, the soil is far better/deeper and the diversity of other flora and fauna is incomparable with the surrounding eucalypt forest. They are also very drought tolerant.

    It is also worth mentioning that the wombats, wallabies and birds which frequent the place would prefer to eat in the food forest on my block and surrounding plantations of blackwoods rather than the surrounding forest.

    Just because they’re big and dominant doesn’t mean that they’re not weeds. With a world of flora with which to choose from I suspect that we have a “do nothing” approach with our native forests because it’s simply easier and cheaper than actually trying to maintain them for the benefit of the eco system.

    I welcome your thoughts and comments.

  6. Susan, yes i agree, and i should have made clearer that my comments were in response to Adam T’s comments and the reference to the Peter Andrews video, rather than Alex’s article specifically.

    Hi Chris McLeod, thanks for your ideas.

    I am aware of Flannery’s proposition that humans and fire were completely the cause of the drying out of the continent and the rise of Eucalypts, and i elude to that in my original post. However, the climate did change a lot during that period, especially in relation to interior rainfall, and whether that was a symptom of all the burning, or the cause, we don’t know; although i suspect Flannery is at least mostly right, as you seem to aswell.

    There is a huge amount of evidence supporting the importance of Eucalypts, it’s right there for you to see in your backyard, and in any other Eucalypt forest in Australia, and the scientific data goes back more than 200 years in the various fields encompassed by the study of ecology. While many native animals are generalists and will forage, shelter and breed in a range of habitats; many are not and are completely dependent on Eucalypt forests and woodlands to meet their ecological needs. Many only occur in specific types of forests with restricted distributions. Without these particular forest types they would become extinct, hence the growing number of threatened forest-dependent species throughout this country; it is widely recognised that habitat loss is the major cause of species decline in south-east Australia, and most of that habitat has been Euclaypt forest and woodland.

    This concept of habitat-type dependence underpins the discipline of vertebrate biogeography, on which there are literally thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers published world-wide – that’s your evidence. So whatever ideological drivers i may have for loving Eucalypts, there is infinite evidence to support their ecological importance.

    I hope you understand the fundamental point i’m making. By the way you would find that many species would not leave the Eucalypt forest surrounding your property to forage in your food forest, if you undertook an exhaustive fauna study, because their ecological requirements are too specific to allow them to. The animals you see are mobile species with a more generalised habitat requirements, and possibly some specialists who fit well into your low closed forest system.

    The term “weed” has many definitions, and depends on your intention for landuse and perspective on the landscape. One bush regenerator’s weed can be a permaculturalists delight. I can see how Eucalypts could be considered undesirable in some landuse systems, and i detail my own ideas about their value in farm systems in my previous post, but as i said previously, to term such an ecologically important genus a weed wholus bolus is in my view irresponsible and showing a lack of understanding of the ecology of our continent.

    Good to have a discussion about Eucalypts though and i hope you can appreciate my arguments.

    Peter

  7. Hi Peter,

    I agree with most of your response.

    The difficulty I have with Eucalyptus forests especially up around where I am is that they remain virtually unmanaged.

    My understanding of the history of this species is that they moved in to dominate a fire disturbed rainforest which covered about a third of the continent. The fires themselves were the work of man whilst the other main disturbance was the removal of the large herbivores from the rain forests (again through the hand of man).

    It should also be remembered that rainforests don’t necessarily require high rainfall environments with which to flourish. They actually require a build up of soil detritus and shade. They also don’t respond well to disturbance.

    The fauna that takes advantage of the eucalyptus forests would have taken advantage of the new niche which arose with the dominance of the eucalyptus forest over a long enough period. Ecology tells us that eco systems are quite dynamic and changing whereas people tend to think of them as a fixed system.

    The problem is as I aluded to above is that the eucalyptus forest requires management, and it is not getting it.

    We need to be honest with ourselves as a society and say that we are too lazy or cheap to be able to manage the forest properly. Either way the animals that you referred to which depend on those forests are threatened because when I look at the forests of the central highlands in Victoria, I don’t see old growth, rather I see too many eucalyptus saplings and not enough support species. An old growth forest will not develop in these conditions. Too many small fires are being effectively extinguished which results in too many large wildfires occuring. In addition to this the soil life in a eucalyptus forest is compromised because it is not unusal to find fallen trees in contact with the ground which have lain there for 27+ years (you can see burns from Ash Wednesday in 1983) – a more active forest would convert these into soil. It is simply poor management on our part.

    Given that we can’t manage the forests in the way that they evolved, the best course would be to admit defeat and plant a forest which does not require our participation. To do otherwise is to be ideologically driven.

  8. Hi there Spencer,
    I subsequently discovered that Enset does reproduce naturally from seed, but it does not succor like bananas. Using the induced succoring is the preferable means of propagation though as it maintains the clonal strain. There are a number of traditional strains maintained this way and each area has its own local strains – some are better for Kocho, some are medicinal, uses vary. Thanks for pointing that out. Alex

    1. Hello there i am Teshalech I am a Teacher and a designer. really love and exited the way You explain about Enset.I like all Enset’s products.I ate and growm up with it.I need to talk more about it and to do some thing.please contact me

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