Thursday, 12 November 2015

A Wonder plant

Have you ever heard of Enset (Ensete Ventrisocum), aka False Banana or Ethiopian Banana? No, nor had I until recently, but now that I have heard about it I am surprised that it is not more widely known and more widely grown.

This resilient plant (which is effectively a tree when mature - after 4 or 5 years) seems to have so many things going for it. It used to be very widely cultivated in eastern Africa, particularly Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and northern Kenya, where it used to be seen as a sort of "insurance policy" crop, to fall back on when shorter-lived but more accessible crops like sorghum, maize and millet failed, but it has fallen into decline during the last century. Climate change has contributed markedly to this decline, because crop failures due to lack of rainfall have sometimes induced farmers to harvest their enset too early, before it is fully mature, in order to stave off starvation. So the effect is that of "The Law of Diminishing Returns".

Enset is a prolific source of food. Fruits, roots and heart are all edible, though I see that the fruit is alleged to be "insipid", unlike the true banana which we all know can be very tasty. Apparently a single root from this plant can yield up to 40 kilograms of food! Read this...(from Wikipedia)

The young and tender tissues in the centre or heart of the plant (the growing point) are cooked and eaten, being tasty and nutritious and very like the core of palms and cycads. In Ethiopia, more than 150 000 ha are cultivated for the starchy staple food prepared from the pulverised trunk and inflorescence stalk. Fermenting these pulverised parts results in a food called kocho. Bulla is made from the liquid squeezed out of the mixture and sometimes eaten as a porridge, while the remaining solids are suitable for consumption after a settling period of some days. Mixed kocho and bulla can be kneaded into dough, then flattened and baked over a fire. Kocho is in places regarded as a delicacy, suitable for serving at feasts and ceremonies such as weddings, when wheat flour is added. The fresh corm is cooked like potatoes before eating. Dry kocho and bulla are energy-rich and produce from 1400 to 2000kJ per 100g.

Apart from being used for food, its wide leaves can be used for roofing material, made into string, used as a packaging material, or used as feed for livestock. It even has medicinal properties which can promote the healing of wounds.

The enset is relatively drought-resistant too, and will prosper where other plants like corn / maize will succumb. I read that it is often inter-planted with sorghum or with coffee, to maximise the use of ground-space. I also see that the plant can be raised from off-shoots from a mature plant, and that up to 400 new plants can be grown from one mature parent.

And in addition to all this, the plant has huge cultural significance, and is used in religious and social ceremonies in some parts of the world.

I know that I have no expertise in this matter, but it seems to me that if governments in Eastern Africa could persuade people to plant more enset, and rely less on imported food supplies (often handouts from Aid Agencies) this could be very beneficial. Although obtaining food from enset sounds like hard work, its yield is more than twice that which can be obtained from growing corn in the same piece of ground, so growing it really does make sense.

In the "civilised" world we rely primarily on mass-produced easy-to-prepare foodstuffs, but we sometimes forget that parts of the world are not like this, and subsistence farming still exists. Would it not be better for Foreign Aid money to be spent on establishing or re-establishing more sustainable small-scale farming methods, so that people could feed themselves without shipping food all round the world? Instead of (or as well as) a bag of maize that will last a month, maybe an Eritrean family in need of help should be given 400 enset offshoots and access to a small patch of land on which to grow them??? This is a relevant variation on the theme of the ancient proverb "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day: teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

I know this is a controversial subject, but what do YOU think? And what other food crops do you know that offer similar benefits?

P.S. Following the publication of this post, someone tweeted me "The problem with enset is that is tastes like crap" !! Maybe that's why it has fallen out of favour?


  1. If you're interest in 'wonder plants', Mark, you should look into baobab and moringa :) Thanks for sharing an interesting post!

    1. Thanks, Emma. I was aware of Boabab, but not Moringa. I have looked it up now...

  2. I totally belive in helping people to help themselves and giving them the tools and know how to grow enset sounds like a very good idea.

  3. I agree that aid should create self sustaining projects.

    I think we bought a variety of Ensete once as an ornamental but it didn't survive winter in three greenhouse. Ours was a red leaved variety.

  4. How interesting - I had never heard of the Ethiopian Banana. I too agree that funds should be directed to using sustainable farming methods in establishing high nutrition crops that are suitable to the area and, of course, educating local people in these methods. The proverb you mentioned came to mind, even before I got to the end of your post.

  5. Oy!

    So, first I would like to state the obvious: Taste is subjective. I, one year ago, was in southern Ethiopia and was treated to enset in several preparations. It was good. And clearly, if the choice is between hunger and enset, not many are ridiculous enough to choose the former.

    Secondly, in the lusher regions of Ethiopia, enset is grown all over the place. In the "poorest" places, farmers at least have a small patch of enset. Land size is an issue. I have a small 1/10 acre lot in the U.S. There is only so much enset I could plant.

    It seems like the areas most affected by famine, and therefore most needy of aid, are those, considering Ethiopia, that are not lush: the north and the east. Cacti grow here, not the lush banana.

    I am not saying that farming cannot be more educated or purposeful: Farming everywhere should strive to become more adapted and giving to its environment.

    And lastly, the majority of us wastes our money to eat food shipped from the other side of the world. It is so easy, and I am guilty as well, to suggest how others' money would be better spent.

    I am glad that you brought light to this plant, as it is an important food to my beloved Ethiopia, and because it is fun to learn.

    Thanks for the catalyst for thought and much interesting conversation in my house.


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