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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables 9 ENSET When drought struck Ethiopia in 1984 and 1985 a horrific tragedy unfolded as the food crops millions depended upon slowly succumbed. The horror was made all the more memorable because it unfolded before the eyes of the world, as television beamed the scene into households from Germany to Japan to Australia. Few viewers had ever witnessed in real time the specter of walking skeletons, children with bellies swollen as if pregnant, babies dying at their mother’s breast. The images shocked the common conscience. They still do. “The world has seen a lot of suffering,” said U.S. congressman Tony P. Hall, “but we still judge hunger against the depths of Ethiopia’s hell.” Among the millions of sufferers were southwestern Ethiopia’s Sombo people, who relied on cereals for their very existence. In the mid-1980s their fields of tef, sorghum, and maize produced little or nothing. Faced with empty shelves and empty stomachs, the Sombo decamped en masse. From their villages in Ilubabor Province they headed eastward, some trudging as far as 500 km to Woliso, a town hardly 100 km short of Addis Ababa itself. On this long and painful trek many died, but in the green highlands the survivors discovered a wholly new type of food resource, a vegetable taller than a house. During their enforced exile in that salubrious region so close to the great capital, they taught themselves to cultivate this huge herb. Returning to Sombo, they carried planting materials home, and the alien food grew to be part of their everyday diet. Already that has paid off. In 1992, a year of constant downpours, most of the coffee crop and up to 90 percent of the cereal crop succumbed to disease. This time, though, there was no famine and no trek in search of succor…the Sombos lived off their gigantic vegetable. Then, in the year 2000 drought again afflicted Ethiopia. By now the new food was well and truly grounded in the Sombo soil and culture. Once more, the suffering caused by empty shelves and long marches never arose.1 1 This story and much of this chapter’s detail come from The Tree Against Hunger., posted at www.aaas.org/international/africa/enset. We are grateful for the authors providing so much information, much of it effortlessly via the worldwide web—a clear example of its broadcasting power; perhaps no other lost African crop has so quickly
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables This is far from being an isolated story. Although almost no outsiders have ever heard of it, this tree-like herb, perhaps the biggest of all vegetables, underpins much of the food supply in Ethiopia’s highlands. Production is concentrated mainly in the areas south and west of the capital, but farmers in the central and northern stretches grow it too (mainly as an “ornamental crop” and to use the leaves for various purposes, but even here the plants serve as a living food depot).2 In terms of production this is hardly a small crop; all in all, an estimated 10 million people consume it. The harvest probably amounts to 2 million tons a year, a quantity surpassing that of radish, parsnip, horseradish, and other better known and much better supported crops. This species, known as enset [en-SET], is unlike any other food plant. Sure, it looks like a banana—thick-stemmed, erect, and towering over the land—but its fruits are all but inedible. In this case, the food is formed inside the stem. The largest specimens have a trunk a meter in diameter and 10 meters tall, and its uppermost portion, which can be three meters long, is filled with starchy pith. A second major food is found underground. This so-called corm may itself be almost a meter long and almost a meter in diameter, and it is packed with starch like some giant potato. An individual plant producing food by the cubic meter is something of a marvel. This long-lived species represents a standing food supply, available for daily use or for the rare times when all other eatables fall short. But enset’s importance extends far beyond food. Every part is useful for something. Southern-highlands farmers declare that, “enset is our food, our clothes, our beds, our houses, our cattle feed, and our plates.” In other words, this is a crop of life; like coconut it provides a basis for subsistence culture…a fundamental resource for those whom even buying bare necessities is more a dream that a prospect. Although only a glance is needed to see enset’s importance for poor-people’s food security, deeper investigation is needed to plumb its true value. Interviews with farmers suggest that Ethiopian peoples who depend on the plant have NEVER suffered famine.3 According to eyewitness reports, only the edges of the older leaves and the sheath surrounding the inner leaves were affected during the 1980s drought years, and once the rains returned the plants resumed growing as if nothing untoward had occurred. In a sense, it seems surprising enset isn’t more widely known. The rural locations that rely on it are some of the most densely populated in Ethiopia, enjoyed such exemplar service in this emerging global medium. 2 This northern arm of enset cultivation extends to Lake Tana, the Simien Mountains, and even Adigrat near the Eritrean border. 3 Different ethnic groups use enset in different ways, but the main ones using it for food are the Gurage, Sidama, Gamo, Hadiya, and Wolayta.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables Gurage Zone, southern Ethiopia. The plant is perhaps the biggest vegetable of all and looks like a banana “tree.” The food, however, comes mainly from the lower trunk, filled with starchy pith, which on the largest specimens can be a meter in diameter and three meters tall. A second food comes from underground, where a corm may be almost a meter long and a meter in diameter, packed with starch like some giant potato. Any plant producing food by the cubic meter is surely something to put to use in a hungry continent, but so far enset is barely known to science, let alone to Ethiopia’s neighbors. (Jürgen Bierwirth)
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables if not the world. What seem from a distance like fields for food production can be as crowded as a suburb in a city, commonly containing 200 to more than 400 persons per square kilometer. In fact, more families are squeezing in daily, and as the farms shrink to accommodate them, more and more enset is being grown. Any species that allows this sort of concertina contraction of the farmland would seem like a godsend for a crowded world. Indeed, this giant vegetable produces such huge amounts of food that a single plant supplies a family of five or six for a month. Although perhaps said with exaggeration, a family of five supposedly can feed itself forever from an enset field less than 10 m by 10 m. You might think that such productivity would demand meticulous care of the land. But, surprisingly, enset farmers do little to maintain or improve their plots, other than add manure. Although traditionally they incorporated exceptional quantities of animal waste, it is still fair to say that the plant provides a long-term sustainable food supply with minimal inputs—an ability one writer considers “probably the most noteworthy characteristic of the enset plant.” Also you might think that withholding inputs would hurt the land, which was far from fruitful in the first place. But that seems not to be the case either. Areas under enset actually appear to be in better shape than those around them…more fertility, more capacity to hold water, more organic matter, more tilth. Enset’s perennial leaf canopy as well as its abundant production of long-lived leaf litter reduces soil erosion and retards the vaporization of organic matter under the triple goads of tropical heat, tropical humidity, and tropical microbial action. It is said that many enset fields have been in continuous production for decades, if not centuries, and yet remain productive, stable, reliable. As to enset foods, they are not the most nutritious—not by a long shot. For all that, though, they are not meritless. Traditionally considered fit only for impoverished farmers, they are now attracting the interest of the better off. Throughout Ethiopia the historical perception of enset as mere “peasant fare” is breaking down. Fine diners who formerly wouldn’t be seen over a plate of enset enjera4 now demand it. And a fermented enset extract called kocho has become extremely popular in Addis Ababa, even in upscale restaurants. Although this plant comes with many telling positives, it comes with telling negatives too. For one thing, enset produces food slowly; after planting, the really large quantities of food in the upper part of the plant can take 7 years to develop fully. For another, neither the stem’s starchy pith nor the corm’s potato-like pulp is well balanced, nutritionally speaking. For a 4 Enjera is Ethiopia’s staple, a spongy pancake-like bread wholly unlike anything else in the world. The dough, which like sour-dough is fermented before cooking, normally comes from cereal grains, especially from the tiny seeds of Ethiopia’s own tef (Eragrostis tef). For details, see tef chapter in Lost Crops of Africa. Volume 1: Grains.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables third, the planting materials are difficult to produce. Fourth, this clonal crop is quite vulnerable to several diseases. Finally, extracting enset starch is one of the most laborious tasks in all agriculture. Sweatshop labor in the cities seems a breeze compared with the “sweat-plot” tyranny enset fields impose. PROSPECTS It has been said that, “the main function of vegetables in semiarid areas should be to provide a means of survival in case of failure or partial failure of the staple cereals, which are more vulnerable to drought and insect attack.” If this be true, then enset would seem the ideal candidate for famine insurance. Yet this enigmatic vegetable is a food resource in only one country, a fact indicating that it may not travel well, no matter what its promise. Ethiopia’s neighbors, often beset by their own horrific droughts and famines, do not grow enset. Not even Ethiopians living in northern and eastern parts of the country seem particularly attracted to it. This may be due to the peculiar production, processing, and consumption characteristics of the plant. Enset is a perennial crop that needs 4 to 8 years to reach full maturity. The complex and arduous processing of its products requires special skill, tradition, and patience. And it is often not an instant hit with consumers. One needs time to begin to like enset food. Within Africa Although it might not find new countries to conquer, enset could certainly expand within Ethiopia. Apparently, it was eaten over a far greater area until just a century ago when it was abandoned and forgotten, perhaps due to misguided colonial influence.5 Beyond Africa The plant seems to have no difficulty growing in lands beyond the seas and (at least in principle) Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and parts of the United States might try cultivating it. However, it seems unlikely that enset will ever make it onto the crop-production lists in any non-African nation. The immigrants are overwhelmingly from central and northern Ethiopia where enset as a food is unknown. And getting the plant to produce food takes time, and perhaps tradition. USES 5 Sadly, this lapse had fateful consequences. “The northern town of Lalibela, famous for its eleventh century rock-hewn churches, is also the site where thousands of people died as a result of the mid-1980s famine,” write The Tree Against Hunger authors. “Some farmers in Lalibela grow a few enset plants near their houses in order to use the leaves to wrap bread for baking. Like other northern Ethiopian farmers, those farmers [we] contacted had no knowledge of enset as food.”
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables Possibly no plant on earth can match this one for the number of products it provides poor people. Greens When young and succulent, several enset parts can be boiled like cabbage or artichoke. The giant stem is actually fashioned out of overlapping layers of rolled up leaves, and the thick immature leaf stalks are cut into small pieces, boiled, and reportedly come out tasting like cooked celery. In addition, the immature pith can be extracted from inside the stem and boiled as a vegetable. Flour The best quality enset food comes mainly from the stems of mature plants. The milky white pulp, known as bula, is obtained by laboriously scraping it off the inner leaf tissues. Most is eaten with milk in the form of an acidic porridge, which is considered a status food. Squeezing bula produces a milky liquid that can be concentrated and dried into a white powder. Dough made from this starch-filled flour is turned into many things, including enjera, porridge, and dumplings. “Cheese” Whereas the whitest and cleanest pith samples are made into flour, the rest are put aside to ferment. Typically, the pasty pulp is placed in a deep pit and left for a few weeks or months. What emerges is a doughlike material called kocho, which, like a great cheddar, keeps for months or years without spoiling. More than 20 foods—yogurts, cakes, dumplings, porridges, and so forth—are made from it. Commonly, kocho is mixed with spices and butter. Some is chopped small and cooked with meat and cabbage. It is so useful and popular that many farmers have dug the fermentation pits inside their homes to foil thieves. “Potato” Young enset corms are commonly cut up and cooked like potato, yam, or cassava. They can also be grated and added to the stem pith to form flour and kocho, as mentioned above. Leaves Banana leaves are certainly big, but enset’s are bigger. Up to five meters long and nearly a meter wide, they are employed as a sort of natural wrapper for bread, grain, meat, kocho, and many more foods. Practically everything leaving the village for the market goes wrapped this way. These huge flat sheets of vegetation also line the kocho pits. Moreover, dried leaves are commonly pulped to make cleaning rags, brushes, baby cushions, diapers, and trivets for supporting hot cooking pots. They are woven into baskets, mats, rain capes, and hats. Some are used as plates for serving food on special occasions and much of the enset leaf crop becomes bedding for man and beast. Beyond all that, the giant green fronds are an important feedstuff, especially in the dry season when grasses tend to make themselves scarce.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables Enset leaves are customarily hauled into the house to satisfy the cattle stalled there nightly for safety and for warmth. The round and hollow stems (petioles) and woody midribs of these giant leaves are separated from the flat leaf tissue and burned as fuel, woven into mats, and made into other materials useful around the house. Insulation between layers of roof thatch is one example. Water pipes is another. Fiber The process of separating the flour from the crude pulp yields a special byproduct: a strong threadlike material not unlike abaca. A world-renowned fiber (from another banana relative, in Asia), abaca withstands boiling water and has proven invaluable for making the tea bags now used worldwide. Each year Ethiopia’s factories process about 600 tons of the enset counterpart, turning it into cordage, sacking, bags, ropes, mats, construction materials, and clothes. Nurse Crop Enset is most commonly grown around houses. There, the plantation acts like a personalized forest, sheltering the family members, their plants, and their animals from wind and sun. Encompassing the homestead with a continuous canopy of vegetation is the goal of most growers. In fact, farmers go out of their way to get the canopy to close up quickly. Not incidentally, this provides an ecosystem conducive to the production of such things as garden greens and coffee. Farmers commonly plant sun-loving annuals such as maize and cabbage among younger enset plants, taking advantage of the sunlight before the canopy closes. But mostly they grow a range of shade-requiring species. Ornamental With its thick, dark-green foliage, enset not only appeals to those living among it, but from a distance it provides an attractive patina to the Ethiopian landscape. NUTRITION Like cassava, sago, plantain, and some other staples, enset flour is little more than starch, with minimal fat, protein, vitamins. Each kilogram contains a mere 37 grams of protein. Enset-based diets thus need heavy supplementation. However, at least one mineral occurs in reasonable quantities: The calcium content is said to be higher than that of other roots and tubers. Fermentation increases protein content and slightly raises the levels of essential amino acid. Indeed, the fermented pulp is said to contain more lysine than cereals have, but the methionine content remains low. Despite the plant’s dismal nutritional power, something about the household garden system benefits human health. In the 1990s a total of 6,636 children from four of Ethiopia’s ecological zones were examined for signs of the blindness brought on by vitamin A deficiency. Sadly, beta-
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables General area of enset cultivation southwest of Addis Ababa (locations and boundaries approximate). Wild enset ranges from Sudan to Nigeria to South Africa. Although few outsiders have ever heard of it, this tree-like crop underpins the food supply in Ethiopia’s densely populated southern highlands, where an estimated 10 million people consume it annually. (Map based on Tree Against Hunger, courtesy of AAAS.) carotene levels were deficient in 10.4 percent of the children and low in 26.4 percent. A more unexpected finding, however, was that children from the enset zone had the highest beta-carotene concentrations of all. In their conclusion the researchers recommended that Ethiopia initiate a vitamin A deficiency control program, with the main emphasis being placed OUTSIDE the enset zone. HORTICULTURE Cultural practices vary between different localities, but virtually all enset is produced in small plots around the homestead. Compared to other crops the production involves many complex steps. Planting is one of the most complex steps. Enset is propagated not by seed but by vegetative means. Trouble is, the plant has no vegetative part to use. However, in what is probably the key to the crop, ancient Ethiopians discovered that cutting out all the central tissue induces the smooth corm to burst out in buds. To bring this about, the farmer cuts the top off a young plant, slices out the corm’s center, and packs soil and manure into the hole.6 With its “heart” excised, the corm has no way to replace its leaves and flower stalk and, in a last-ditch attempt to reproduce it throws off as many as 200 buds around its edges. After a year, those buds sprout leaves and can be broken off. The resulting suckers, looking like ensets in a bonsai garden, are planted in nurseries, where, following another year or two, they turn into 6 Because of dominance by this apical bud, lateral buds on the true stem do not usually develop; but once the apical bud is removed, these lateral buds form suckers around the periphery of the mother corm piece.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables viable plants with all the size and qualities of their parent. Managing the crop in the field is a second complex step. Again almost every locality has its own variant, but one common feature is a strange sort of “shifting cultivation” in which the plants are moved around like men on a chessboard. This seems to be an attempt to keep a canopy of leaves always sheltering the garden as well as to keep the bigger specimens from cannibalizing each other’s nutrients and water. Some individual plants get moved once in their lifetime; others shift positions up to four times, at ever-wider spacing. Harvesting is complex too. Some plants get cut down after two or three years (for the fresh corms); others are left for perhaps three times as long to generate the maximum amount of stem starch. All this variation in production allows the family to have a continuous food supply for years, if not forever. To outsiders used to the order of grain fields in places such as Kansas or New South Wales, however, it seems like a scene from some nightmare of cultivation chaos. HARVESTING AND HANDLING Although we’ve said that enset plants typically live 7 years, the lifespan depends on the altitude. In warm locations at low elevation ensets reach maturity in five, four, or even three years. In colder higher locations they can take ten or fifteen years. Once mature, the plants must be harvested because they then begin flowering, use up all the starch they’ve stored, and die. Although the farmer normally harvests the plant just before it flowers and dies, it may be harvested anytime during the years the starch is building up in the stem and root. This is where the backbreaking labor comes in. The farmer cuts the pulp-filled stem or corm into strips using something like a machete, then scrapes out the pulp and juice using small bits of wood or bamboo. The task seems never-ending because each pass scrapes only a small sliver from the fibrous pulp. Yields are difficult to evaluate because different plants are grown for different numbers of years, their spacing changes with time, and at various points they are interspersed with other species and other-sized enset plants. However, it has been estimated that the average family cultivates between 200 and 400 ensets in their household garden, consuming 10 to 20 per person per year. A normal-size mature plant is said to give 26 to 42 kg of food. In regions where enset is the staple crop, people consume 0.43 to 0.7 kg of kocho daily. According to those who recorded this fact, such an amount of kocho provides 860 to 1,400 calories, or between half and three-quarters of the food-energy typically consumed in rural Ethiopia.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables A woman selling kocho at a local market. Note that enset leaves are used like plates or mats on which to display the product. Women are generally the exclusive marketers of enset food products. (Anita Spring) LIMITATIONS Diseases are collectively the most severe biological problem this crop faces. In several locations bacterial wilt is currently very threatening. It attacks right up to the moment the plants are ready to harvest. Nothing could be more mean sprited. The farmers become so devastated by the waste of
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables years of life, labor, and land that out of pure frustration they switch to crops that are less galling. Enset is attacked also by root-knot nematodes, viruses, and fungi. During the early 1970s a fast-spreading fungus (Fusarium oxysporum) decimated enset and precipitated a famine. This fearsome fungus is related to others attacking bananas worldwide; luckily in this case the enset recovered. Enset processing is an overall abhorrence. Not only is it tiresome and demoralizing, it is unhygienic. Someone has written that “without women to process enset, there would be no enset food produced and the plant would simply be an ornamental, as it is in other parts of Africa and Asia.” That says a lot, and not just about the plant. Lack of understanding is a big limitation as well. Until recent years the Ethiopian government emphasized more prestigious, profit-making, crops such as cereals. Only in 1997 was enset declared a National Crop, making it eligible for reasonable research and development funding. NEXT STEPS Following are a selection of possibilities that can move enset forward to better serve African needs. Plant Health Bacterial wilt deserves top priority. On the surface, this bacterium should not be difficult to deal with. It is spread from plant to plant not by wind or water, but by the farmers themselves. Any object touching a contaminated plant or processed product (such as kocho) picks up the infection. Machetes and the little wooden scrapers are major culprits. Needed here is a public-health campaign aimed at making farmers keep their tools and plant materials clean of the infection. An especial need is to prevent the bacterium from spreading into the still uninfected regions. Another special need is to ensure that materials go to market only in wrappers untainted by wilt. Beyond an education program there appear to be good possibilities for developing wilt-resistant enset plants. Already, some farmers have noted that certain clones tolerate the disease, while others revive rapidly after a bout with the bacterium. Reducing Drudgery Several institutions have developed devices that reduce the tedium and time needed to process enset.7 Few if any have had much impact. Women are beginning to use iron scrapers for decortication and cloth squeezers for bula, but there is still vast scope for reducing the damaging drudgery that devastates lives. Needed now is a concerted effort to develop and test: 7 These include the Institute of Agricultural Research (at Nazaret and at Awassa), the Ministry of Agriculture, and Awassa College of Agriculture.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables a decorticater that separates pulp from the leaf-sheath; a pulverizer to grate the corm into fine pieces; a kneader to squeeze water from fermented kocho; and a shredder to chop the fiber in the fermented kocho. Indeed, there is also potential for all such devices to be disseminated as part of a cottage-industry development package that updates and simplifies the entire process of enset production. Presumably, most of the devices would be manually operated, but the potential for mechanized processing by portable or village-based power-driven scrapers, pulverizers, kneaders, and shredders should not be overlooked. This whole area of development needs open-minded innovators from mechanical engineers to food technologists to tinkerers of the handyman subspecies. Livestock In The Tree Against Hunger, the authors draw attention to the critical role livestock play in enset farming. Cattle provide many vital things: manure to make the trees grow, milk and meat to balance the diet, power for plowing, and cash for times of need. This connection is not well enough appreciated in high places. “All too often,” say the authors, “researchers and extensionists ignore the importance of livestock in maintaining the productivity (and with respect to enset, the sustainability) of agricultural systems.” Thus one of the best sciences for bettering this plant’s production may be animal science. The authors state that positive effects on enset cultivation systems would come from improving animal nutrition and health, improving breeds, training farmers to cull herds, and providing information, capital, and planting materials to improve pastures and forages. The farmers seem likely to be very receptive. Even now, they commonly ask for better veterinary help. Further, turning enset leaves into silage and feed concentrates has not been explored, but it could have great potential for enhancing feed for livestock. Balancing the Diet Beyond raising the availability of milk and meat, the enset system’s overall nutritional output could be improved by increasing the production of other vegetables. Grain legumes such as common bean, lentil, and chickpea have been suggested, but there must be many more possibilities. Although the thrust should be less toward research and more toward extension, there is vast scope here for far-reaching collaborations between nutritionists and horticulturists of many backgrounds. Marketing Assistance Enset is a powerful tool for poverty reduction and prevention. Beyond being a subsistence resource, it is a commercial resource
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables of note. Thousands of women sell enset foods to make money for household supplies such as kerosene and salt. One “cursory survey” of the main Addis Ababa market, Mercato, revealed over 120 women selling kocho and bula. In addition, both women and men sell leaves, mats, rope, construction materials, and other non-food products made from the enset plant. Informal interviews and observations at Addis Ababa restaurants indicate establishments often run out of quality kocho. They yearn for more. The shortages are blamed on poorly developed marketing and transport systems, but many related issues also need improvement, including storage facilities, quality assurance, capital, and packaging. New Locations People in the regions of Tigray and Amhara (e.g., Gondar and Wollo) don’t eat enset, but the plant occurs all around them, and they wrap dough in the leaves while baking their bread. Although attempts have been made to inform and encourage farmers here to grow the crop for food, more efforts are needed. Taken overall, enset could perhaps double in area, and prime locations for expansion are in these regions, which are vulnerable to droughts and disasters and where the plant occurs but is not used. As far as locations outside Ethiopia are concerned, the crop might at first sight seem very promising. Wild enset already grows from Sudan in the north and Nigeria in the west, all the way to Angola and South Africa in the south. Nonetheless, its chances of being cultivated for food outside Ethiopia are probably slim. Not only are the methods of turning it into food unknown in those locations, they are probably difficult to introduce. Nonetheless, exploratory efforts are warranted. If the preliminary hurdles can be overcome, then this species might provide the long dreamed of stable, reliable, sustainable farming system much of drought-threatened Africa desperately needs. Its potential is mainly for areas that do well most years, only to suffer devastating periodic desiccation. Food Technology There is a great need for food technologists to involve themselves with the problems surrounding enset. They are needed, for example, to make the processing hygenic and reliable. A starter (called gamacho) is used to begin the fermentation of kocho, but it is usually just a sample scooped out of the last batch. Partly for this reason, kocho is a variable foodstuff, not quite to be trusted. Food technologists should investigate this fermentation, create pure cultures, and adopt appropriate techniques from cheesemakers. In this way, quality kocho of verifiable safety and stability could be produced routinely. That will surely open up the big city markets. Another role for food scientists is to identify the enset’s nutritional components. For example, at present no one knows much about the protein’s actual amino-acid profile.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables Horticultural Development Although research on enset has sputtered along since at least the early 1960s, it has lacked continuity and direction. Thus, the door remains wide open to investigation on a dozen fronts. Examples provided by another reviewer include: the effects on growth and yield of different clones; plant spacing, and duration at a given spacing; transplanting methods; manure and/or fertilizer amendments; propagation techniques; and environmental conditions (i.e., temperature, water, and sunlight). All these have yet to be pinned down. Much of what is needed is basic research. For instance, corm rot, sheath rot, and dead-heart leaf rot are all diseases for which the actual pathogen remains unidentified. One special challenge is to speed up the plant’s growth. The best time to harvest it is just when flowering begins, but exactly when flowering occurs depends upon climate, clone, and management. Currently, it varies from 3 to 15 years but is most commonly 6 or 7 years. A broad approach, involving everything from clone selection to field management could possibly cut that time in half and make the farmers all the happier, not to mention twice as safe from failure due to drought or disease. SPECIES INFORMATION Botanical Name Ensete ventricosum (Welw.) Cheesman Synonyms Musa ensete, Ensete edule, Musa ventricosum Family Musaceae Common Names Ethiopia: enset, guna-gunaf (Amhara), asat (Gurage), weise (Kambata), and wassa (Sidama), kocho (G), koda (Am/Sodo/Oromo), werke, wesa (Oromo), [aquimi (Ari)] English: enset, ensete, Abyssinian banana, wild banana, false banana Malawi: Chizuzu (Ch) South Africa: Afirikaanse wilde-piesang (Afrikaans), motholo (Pedi), mulala (Venda) Kenya: ndizi mwitu (Swahili), makulutui (Ka) Zimbabwe: mubhanana mufigu, dzoro, hovha Description This species looks quite like a banana plant. Enset, however, is usually larger, its leaves more erect, and shaped somewhat more like a lance head. They are spirally arranged, and bright green with a striking red midrib. What would appear to be the trunk in most plants is actually three distinct sections. A short length at ground level is the only part of the plant
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables that is true botanical stem. Leaf sheaths emerging from this core form a tightly wrapped pseudostem, at the top of which the leaves unfurl into the classic “banana” form. This stem-like portion, up to three meters long, contains both edible pulp and quality fiber. And below the soil line is an enlarged corm, up to 0.7 meters or more in length and diameter, also full of starches. A fibrous rooting system grows out from the corm. While banana plants naturally form suckers or clusters of plants at the base, enset plants do not. This is a monocarpic plant. Like century plant and bamboo, it bears fruit only once, and then quickly dies of exhaustion. It may live 15 years before the big fat flower stalk emerges from the top of the plant. Once out, it forms a massive, pendulous spike. Surely one of the world’s biggest flowers, it is 2 to 3m long, and hangs downward from a stalk in the center of the plant. The individual florets are cream colored, with a single petal, enclosed in large maroon bracts. The fruits resemble small bananas, having a yellow skin, but they are filled with a mass of hard, small pea-like seeds. Distribution Few details about enset’s overall distribution are known. Within Africa The wild type occurs from Nigeria in West Africa through the central to the southern parts of the continent, including Transvaal, Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique. However, Ethiopia is the only place where the species has been domesticated. Suggestions that the plant was tamed as far back as 10,000 years ago have been presented. The wild form occurs at lower altitudes than the present area of enset cultivation in Ethiopia. Beyond Africa Enset is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental in Asia and other places. New Zealand is one country that it reportedly beautifies. Horticultural Varieties There are no formal varieties but farmers recognize more than 50 different clones, and normally grow several together in the same field. Certain ones are renowned for their quality corms. Environmental Requirements Detailed studies on the effects of environmental constraints such as temperature and water availability have not been conducted. Therefore, all claims as to enset’s range of adaptation are suspect. Rainfall Most enset-growing areas receive annual rainfall of between 1,100 and 1,500 mm, the majority of which falls between March and
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables September. This amount may not be necessary, but it is known that the crop fails in consistently dry environments with short rainy seasons. Altitude Enset is planted at altitudes ranging from 1,100 to more than 3,000 m. It is said to grow best between 2,000 and 2,750 m. Low Temperature The average temperature of enset growing areas is between 10 and 21°C, with relative humidity of 63 to 80 percent. The optimal temperature range has been put at 18 to 28°C. From preliminary observations it can be said that enset cannot tolerate freezing. Frost damage on upper leaves is commonly observed above 2,800 m elevation, and serious stunting occurs above 3,000 m. High Temperature Any constraint to enset plant growth probably is more related to available water than to heat. It is possible, however, that the crop is more subtropical than tropical because the current production areas— while close to the equator—are so high in the sky. Soil Enset grows well in most soil types, as long as they are sufficiently fertile. Neither roots nor corms tolerate waterlogging for long. For that reason, the crop is usually grown in well-drained soils without high watertables. The ideal soil seems to be a moderately acidic to slightly alkaline (pH 5.6 to 7.3).
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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
Representative terms from entire chapter: