16 February 2008
Many readers will have heard of the Tree of Knowledge but how many will have heard of the Tree Against Hunger - also called enset (Ensete ventricosum) - which grows in Ethiopia and is considered by some to hold the answer to food shortages and famine in Africa?
The Norfolk African Community Association (NACA), based in Norwich, is researching this extraordinary plant, which resembles a large banana plant and is often called the 'false banana'. Every part of the enset plant can be used, be it for food rich in carbohydrate and calcium, clothing, cattle-feed, fibre for many uses, or domestic furniture. As a tree, its roots and leaf canopy reduce soil erosion, and it is drought resistant in ways that annual crops are not. Its products may be harvested at any time of year, without the long hunger periods of cereal crops.
But despite its versatility, enset was virtually ignored for many years, while farmers were encouraged (by former Ethiopian Governments and western aid agencies) to concentrate on cereals and 'cash crops' such as coffee. However the famines, which ravaged Ethiopia in the 1980s and 1990s, persuaded the local people that enset's drought-resistant properties and its long-term sustainability could contribute to the eradication of famine. Research is currently in progress to improve the yield and to simplify the processing technique. Crucially, it has been discovered that enset and coffee actually benefit from growing together as companion plants, therefore famine prevention can go hand-in-hand with developing a modest cash economy, while stabilising local food production.
One type of food made from enset is called Kocho and is rich in carbohydrate and calcium. Kocho can be baked as bread and another product called Boula is usually used as porridge. Boula is also believed to help mend broken bones and a bad back. Kocho and Boula can be stored for many years if well wrapped in enset’s leaves and kept air-tight. Experience has shown that the quality of this food improves the longer it is stored – like laying down a vintage wine! In 1997, the Ethiopian government belatedly recognised enset's importance and declared it a 'national crop' worthy of significant research and development funding.
So, how did the Norfolk African Community Association (NACA) become involved?
Image: the 'Tree Against Hunger'
In 2002, Connections for Development (CfD) was formed to create a structured relationship between the Department for International Development (DfID) and black minority ethnic (BME) communities in the UK. It is a membership-based organisation, committed to ensuring that BME communities are supported in shaping and delivering policy and projects affecting their countries of origin. Norfolk's NACA is a member of CfD and has chosen enset as one of their projects.
Africa faces, over the next decade, an ever-increasing need to achieve sustainability in agricultural production and the importance of the NACA's involvement with a project which reduces food shortages while helping the achievement of the UN Millennium Goals, cannot be overemphasised.
In Ethiopia, enset has been grown for such a long time that its cultivation and use is deeply interwoven into the rural culture. Gender and age issues are intricately involved in the growing, harvesting and processing of different parts of the plant, and even in the selection of which varieties of the plant to grow: men prefer to select varieties that mature later but give a larger yield, while women go for those that mature earlier and taste better.
As it grows from a planted sucker into a sizeable tree over a 6-9 year period, enset needs transplanting several times to economise in land use. Unfortunately at these times the plant is susceptible to a wilting disease, and Dr Eshetu Wondimagegne from NACA is interested in seeking remedies for this. The bacterium responsible has been identified and the ways it is transmitted from crop to crop are known. What is now required is to establish a control measure to eradicate the source of the disease. The challenge is to turn technical knowledge gained in the laboratory into practical measures, which can be carried out on the land by rural communities. If this is achieved it will mean food self-sufficiency for over forty million people in Ethiopia and the 'Tree Against Hunger' will have fulfilled its promise.
In searching for practical remedies to enset wilt, Dr Eshetu Wondimagegne and his colleagues in NACA are working on a research project of fundamental importance to future generations in a continent that has had more than its fair share of upheavals and exploitation.
I am very grateful to Dr Eshetu Wondimagegne for his input to this column. To find out more about NACA's projects, e-mail: email@example.com.