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.

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….