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Drought Resistant Tree Helps Fight Hunger in Ethiopia


Food scientists say greater cultivation of enset could help provide needed calories during drought and food shortages. Enset [Ensete ventricosum] is a domesticated tree crop grown in southern Eritrea and in Ethiopia's southern highlands. it's also a vegetable that's sometimes mistaken for a fruit – it's commonly known as "false banana." Enset produces fruit that look like small bananas, but they're full of seeds and not edible.

Enset trees are also larger than banana trees – up to 10 meters tall, with taller and straighter leaves. And, unlike banana trees, enset does not sprout clusters of plants, or suckers, at the base.

Enset is better known by consumers as a root crop: it has an underground corm, or large stem that looks like a bulb, which can be dug up and eaten like a potato.

Steven Brandt is a professor of anthropology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"It has a big, bulbous corm, it's not really a root," clarifies Brandt. "It can be large, depending on age of the plant, or small like a fist."

"If it is young, you can dig it up and boil the corm – it will look like and taste like a potato. As it gets older it becomes more starchy. When it's very old, they prefer to use the pseudo-stems and stems which they shred into thin long pieces and then put it into pit for long periods of months to produce this fermented kocho."

Kocho is a paste that can be grilled, chopped or cooked with meat. During food shortages, it can be eaten in place of the popular bread called njera, which is made from the grain teff.

Other parts of the plant are also edible.

Some dry the milky white pulp, or bula, and make it into a flour that can be mixed with water to create a breakfast food sometimes used for weaning children. Dough made from the flour is also used in making dumplings and porridges.

Enset leaves can be boiled like greens or used to wrap bread, grain and meat. They can also be woven into baskets, mats, rope and plates. Some burn the hollow stems as fuel.

Still, Brandt says many development experts pay more attention to cereals than to local foods like enset.

"It is not appealing," says Brandt, "to those agencies that want to introduce crops like wheat, maize corn on a large scale -- [grains with which] you can feed lots of people very quickly. That avoids crisis in short term, but those crops are prone to drought and it's just a matter of if, not when, a drought will occur again in Ethiopia."

But enset also has its drawbacks.

The authors of the publications Lost Crops of Africa by the US National Research Council note it can take the upper part of the plant up to seven years to produce fruit. Much of the plant is high in starch, but low in protein and vitamins. Enset is vulnerable to bacterial wilt and nematodes, viruses and fungi. Also, removing starch from the plant is labor-intensive. It involves cutting the pulp-filled stem into strips, then scraping out the pulp and juice with small bits of wood or bamboo.

Better storage and transport systems could help meet a growing demand for enset products like kocho in urban markets and restaurants. The authors of the Lost Crops series say enset production could double in Ethiopia's drought prone Tigray and Amhara regions, where people use only the leaves to wrap the dough they bake for bread.

Scientists recommend further research on ways to keep enset trees healthy and on finding improved technologies to make it easier to extract the pulp, grate the corm, and chop the fiber in the fermented kocho.

Today, some farmers grow enset along with sorghum or even coffee. Food scientists say the leaves from the drought-resistant tree might also be used as silage for livestock, which in turn produce manure that will help the plant grow -- and provide milk and meat.

The tree has been domesticated in Ethiopia's southern highlands, southern Eritrea and Madagascar. And scientists say with improvements in production and processing, enset might also be eaten in regions where it grows in the wild: from Nigeria in the western Sahel to eastern Sudan, and as far south as Angola and South Africa.


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