Enset (Ensete ventricosum) growing next to maize © James Borrell/RBG Kew.

Better Know Enset, The Banana-Like “Wonder Crop” That Can Fight Food Insecurity

Enset is a relative of the banana. It has been cultivated in a parts of Ethiopia for generations because it has several unique characteristics that make it a resilient and reliable staple crop.  Despite Enset’s incredible potential to support food security it is rarely — if ever —  cultivated beyond the Ethiopian Highlands.

My guest, Dr. James Borrell, is a research fellow at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, in the United Kingdom. He is the co-author of a recent study demonstrating that Enset could be productively grown in other regions of Africa, potentially providing a staple crop for over 100 million people.

We kick off the conversation with an extended introduction to this “wonder crop” before discussing its potential to fight hunger and food insecurity in regions beyond the Ethiopian Highlands.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What is Enset?

Dr. James Borrell [00:02:18] Everybody knows what a banana is; they eat the fruit, and they probably could recognize a tropical banana growing in a garden of a nice hotel in a tropical country. We’re all kind of familiar with bananas — and to give their technical term, the family is called the Musaceae; that’s where the word Musa comes from and that’s the sort of common name for banana in many, many countries. The Musaceae is quite a big family; there’s about 70 or 80 species of banana and then there’s some sister groups: one called the musella, and there’s one called the ensets. And \ all of these plants are quite similar, and we call them a family. The species we’re familiar with are the bananas that we eat but there are other species in that family, and most of them are really poorly known and no one’s ever heard of them. One of those species is called enset and whereas all true bananas come from Southeast Asia, enset is actually an African species and ensets, almost the complete opposite of banana in that bananas started in Southeast Asia and spread all around the world whereas enset is present across many countries in eastern and southern Africa, but it’s only ever been used in Ethiopia so it has sort of an opposite distribution to what you’d expect of most kind of domesticated bananas.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:39] What does it taste like? I mean, I take it does not taste like a banana.

Dr. James Borrell [00:03:44] No. So, with enset, you sort of you have to throw away everything that you’re familiar with about a crop. So, we all have biases depending on where we come from or where we grew up. So, I’m from the UK, which is a temperate region, so I’m very familiar with cereals and tubers and that’s what I think of but enset is a giant, herbaceous perennial. So, it’s like a giant banana — the trunk can be a meter across, has a corm underground that can weigh 100 kilograms and that’s that entire biomass, that entire sort of fleshy trunk that is pulverized and then it’s fermented for several months. That fermented paste or mulch is then baked into a type of flatbread and you end up with a very filling and quite strong-smelling starch staple, essentially.

How is enset prepared and eaten?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:40] Is it sort of like a blank canvas in terms of flavor? Like you could turn it into that bread but add things on top of it?

Dr. James Borrell [00:04:48] Yeah or you’d serve it with other things. So, enset forms part of a really important subsistence diet and traditionally it would be part of a diet with cabbage and milk, which might not sound that exciting, but that kind of covers all of your bases. If you are particularly affluent in Ethiopia, then you would eat enset — and the food product made from enset is called kocho. You would eat kocho with kitfo which is raw minced meat. And that’s the flagship regional dish like that’s the really, really cool thing to eat and I’ve tried it and it’s delicious. But enset, if you’ve not grown up with it, is always going to be a little bit of an unusual flavor and it takes a bit of time to get used to but it is a really filling crop and that’s a sort of perfect food for the farmers and people who are really physically active.

Why is enset a helpful crop in food insecure areas?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:41] I take it one thing that makes it particularly interesting from a food security perspective is that it is relatively easy to grow, or at least it’s like a sturdy crop and it can be drought resistant, much like, say, cassava.

Dr. James Borrell [00:05:58] Yeah so this is essentially why we are really interested in enset and why we are collaborating with our Ethiopian partners. So, there are probably more than 7000 or so plants that humans eat and only a few hundred of those do we really consider crops. And of course, we could study and do modeling work and do genetic work on any of those species and it would be really useful. But enset fulfills a really unusual sort of niche — has a really unusual combination of traits. And if you are interested in food security in developing countries, particularly under climate change, then enset really ticks a lot of boxes and the reason is several fold. So firstly, enset is perennial and that means it continues growing each year. It’s not destructively harvested after one season. It also isn’t seasonal in the timing that you can harvest it. So as enset gets larger, you can cut it down and turn it into food at any point. It’s not like a fruit tree, which is also perennial but is only ready at a certain time of year. And what that means for farmers is that they have massive harvest flexibility. And that means that they can buffer seasonal food insecurity. So, if you’re growing enset together with a suite of other crops, some of those will be ready at certain times of year. Some of them might be cash crops, and they give you a return to certain times of year. But if you have strange climate at a certain time of year, you have local issues, a family issue or some other kind of disaster or a disturbance that can really throw that system, particularly if it’s at a really important time of year when lots of your crops are ready to be harvested. So having enset allows you to use it when it’s needed. It’s like an asset. We’re calling it a green asset because you can dip into it when you need it. And so, what you find on farms is that farmers have three, four, five, six, seven-year-old ensets. They have all these different cohorts of different ages, and in a good year they might use less and your stock kind of increases and in the bad year you use more, and you dip into some of your younger plants you might not have planned to harvest and that is buffering seasonal food insecurity over the years. I imagine most of your listeners, if they think about Ethiopia, where this is a staple crop will have heard about Ethiopia because of famines and climate instability. And so, it’s probably one of the reasons why Ethiopian farmers have domesticated this crop over hundreds of thousands of years — we don’t exactly know how long — is to meet those challenges that the Ethiopian climate faces. And so those unique set of traits that enset has make it this really unusual crop that we think could have wider utility, not just in Ethiopia, but perhaps more widely.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:57] Unlike other subsistence farmers in other parts of Africa or other parts of the world, those who cultivate enset are not as vulnerable in the lean season because as you said, it’s perennial and there is no lean season when you are cultivating enset.

Dr. James Borrell [00:09:16] Essentially. Yes, I mean, that’s the hypothesis and our research program is essentially trying to prove that or test that, I should say, we come at it with a hypothesis to test but that’s what our data seems to suggest.

Why isn’t enset already a popular crop?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:34] So if enset has all of these really important qualities for food security, why hasn’t its cultivation spread far beyond that one region of Ethiopia?

Dr. James Borrell [00:09:49] Yeah, that’s the million-dollar question. So, it’s distribution is amazingly narrow. And now Ethiopia is a very populous country. It’s about 108 million people and enset is the staple for about 25 million of that population but if you look on a map enset hasn’t spread out of that southwest corner of Ethiopia, and it’s potentially been cultivated for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. And so, compared to lots of other global crops and especially compared to banana, its really closely related sister species, that’s now all around the tropics, why hasn’t enset spread? Now the work we’ve done recently shows that there is wider climate suitability elsewhere in Ethiopia and in other countries, particularly elsewhere in ensets, wild range. So probably one of the big reasons is that it’s one thing having the plant and it’s another knowing how to cultivate it and turn it into food. We call that sort of knowledge indigenous knowledge. So, enset cultivation and agronomy are really quite complicated; there’s a complicated way of propagating it. There’s a complicated series of steps to transplant it and grow it. The management is quite complicated and then when you want to turn it into food, the fermentation process is quite complicated. Ethiopia is sometimes called the roof of Africa because it contains a very large proportion of the high elevation land in Africa, which means it has quite a different climate than elsewhere. And so, the way farmers do crops, as well as the cultural and ethnic groups in Ethiopia are quite distinct from neighboring regions in Sudan, Somalia and northern Kenya. And so it could be that that sort of intervening region that is a lot hotter and drier acted as a barrier, not just to ensets dispersal as a crop, but also more importantly to that Indigenous knowledge. So, the crop could move but if you don’t have that knowledge of the people that know how to grow it, then it’s essentially useless to you. And so, one hypothesis is that that Indigenous knowledge has provided the really big barrier. And that’s really, really important because a lot of plant scientists, conservationists, we’re focused on trying to conserve crops. One way to conserve crops is through gene banks and seed banks and that’s a really, really growing strategy but that can be I won’t use the word useless, but you can be really hindered if you conserve the crop, but you don’t find a way to fairly and equitably conserve the knowledge that comes along with it. You’re really missing out on 90% of its utility.

Where else could enset be grown if the Indigenous knowledge of its cultivation was taught?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:41] So that’s fascinating. It’s really that intersection of history and geography and culture that has potentially prevented the spread of enset to other regions, to other parts of that region, I should say. But your study looked at the potential geographic and climatic suitability of enset to these surrounding regions and found that, in fact enset could survive and thrive theoretically, right?

Dr. James Borrell [00:13:16] Absolutely, and not just climatic suitability. Identifying if it will grow is one thing but we also tried to identify whether there are communities that could benefit from ensets unique combination of traits, right? So, enset grows without irrigation, for example and so if you have irrigation there’s lots of other crops that are quite desirable but if you’re quite rural, you’re predominantly subsistence, you’re not particularly exposed to the cash crop market, you don’t have irrigation, you have the right climate. So, a whole series of contexts then, yes, there’s lots of actual places where enset could really be suitable. But I should say that the really important aspect is that we as a collaboration between the UK and Ethiopian universities are providing this knowledge and this research but it’s really a decision for the Ethiopian government and essentially the farmers who developed enset to make that decision about what happens. So, I think there’s two different kinds of stages. There’s one that’s exploring where else in Ethiopia. One thing that’s really interesting is in very historic accounts of a couple hundred years ago there are descriptions of enset from a much wider region in Ethiopia. And so, there’s some suggestion that enset underwent a big decline a few hundred years ago. So, this one stage is looking at its potential spread in Ethiopia to improve the food security of the farmers outside of its current cultivation area and then beyond that, there’s the potential for other countries as well. But this is a longer-term view, but it’s really exciting.

How many people rely on enset for their diet and nutrition?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:04] So I wanted to ask you about what it would take to perhaps transmit or increase the adoption of enset beyond the region in which it’s currently cultivated. And you mentioned earlier, probably about 25 million people subsist off of enset in part is that right, currently?

Dr. James Borrell [00:15:26] Yeah so 20, 25 million people are very substantially dependent on enset. When we talk about the expansion of enset, we’re not necessarily advocating for new people to treat enset as their staple. What we’re really excited about is the potential for enset to help you buffer those extreme events, those disasters.

How many people would benefit from an increased adoption of growing enset as a diet staple?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:52] And in theory, based on your research, how expansive could those numbers be? How many people could be supported in part, could be prevented from falling deep into food insecurity through a more widespread use or adoption or cultivation of enset?

Dr. James Borrell [00:16:12] So our modeling identified potentially a little over 100 million people across eastern southern Africa, which fall in the sort of climatic envelope of enset and meet a set of criteria. And of course, I’m not an enset farmer, but the way I would envisage the potential for that is new farmers growing a handful of enset at the end of their farm. They require very little maintenance. But the statistic is that 15 mature enset plants can feed a person for a year and so just a handful of plants could get the family through a several week period whilst other kind of interventions came online. So, the potential for enset is not necessarily to replace other staples, but it’s to augment a different set of traits and to be that buffer, that kind of emergency resource across a wider area.

What will encourage farmers to plant more enset and treat it as a climate resilience crop?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:23] So what then will it take for farmers in the wider region to potentially use enset as that buffer to prevent food insecurity, to prevent acute hunger?

Dr. James Borrell [00:17:42] I think it takes two things and this is where the research kind of goes beyond us. The first thing I think it takes is for us to recognize much more widely internationally that crop diversity is one of the strongest tools we have to deliver climate resilience. So, growing a diversity of crops that are ready at different times of year, that are reliant on different climate regimes, helps you buffer the climate uncertainty. So, crop diversity is absolutely key. If we can increase the knowledge and the acceptance and the permeation of that approach, then I would really be looking to high biodiversity, tropical countries, places like Ethiopia, other countries in West Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, to be the leaders, because these are the countries that are rich in crop diversity. It’s their greatest asset. It’s up to them in the future I hope because it will benefit all of us to lead the way in helping us increase the diversity of currently underused crops that the global food system relies on.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:57] So it’s like a political decision and political steps that need to be taken…

Dr. James Borrell [00:19:03] Entirely political. To start with, this is a political approach. There’s lots of fantastic agricultural NGOs. If you gave them a challenge, can you get this crop to grow in this place and, you know, support people to use it? They would be able to do it. But the crops need to be fairly and equitably used and enset for example is the heritage of Ethiopia. It would be wrong to do anything that isn’t led by Ethiopia, essentially and it’s the same for many other crops around the world. So, we need to have systems that fairly and equitably share the benefits of these crops.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:51] So, is it your belief that if enset is equitably shared, if there are political steps taken to introduce, cultivate, support farmers growing and cultivating enset that in fact it can be like a, I don’t want to say a silver bullet, but a key tool to end acute hunger in that part of the world?

Dr. James Borrell [00:20:23] So one of the phrases that people really like to use is Wonder Crop and, you know, everyone loves to find one kind of simple solution that can have a really big impact. I think enset does have a pretty unique set of traits, and I think it could fill a really important role but there are hundreds, probably thousands of other remarkable species that haven’t received anywhere near the research attention that they deserve. So, to give you a statistic, we get more than half of our human calories from just three species of grass: rice, wheat and maize. And so, there’s a spectacular diversity of plants that humans have used in the past. And the real silver bullet, I think, is maintaining the diversity of our agriculture systems and enhancing it, because there’s a lot of evidence that globalization is contributing to the homogenization of agricultural systems, which makes us all more vulnerable. So, I would say enset can be a really nice ambassador. It’s an amazing crop. People can get really excited about it because it’s like a banana but not a banana, and it’s kind of exotic and strange and we’ve never heard about it. But it should be a gateway to getting people interested in crop diversity and why that’s so important. And I should just say that I’m a conservation biologist by background, and I’m interested in wild biodiversity. I want to conserve rainforests and all these things. But increasingly, we recognize that actually food security is the most important enabler of that. It’s very difficult to talk in developing countries about conservation unless you’ve met those basic needs of health, well-being, safety, security and food security. And so, agriculture and efficient agriculture and sustainable agriculture underpinned by agrobiodiversity is really key if we want to tackle climate change and tackle global biodiversity loss, it’s the foundation of those things.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:24] Well, I love your framing of enset as the gateway to that larger conversation about crop diversity and biodiversity.

Dr. James Borrell [00:22:34] And enset isn’t just one crop. There are actually hundreds and over 1000 potentially different land races. What I mean by land races is varieties. If you think about apples in a supermarket, they’re all different varieties. Braeburn, Gala, Pink Lady. And a lot of these different varieties have different values of farmers, some are drought resistant, and some are disease resistant, some mature fast, some are particularly tasty. And so, we’re really trying to help farmers adapt to climate change by tailoring which land races they grow and helping them adapt those land races as Ethiopia warms like the rest of the world. And so, using that diversity to help farmers adapt, I think is really, really exciting.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:23] Well, James, thank you so much. This is really interesting. Thank you.

Dr. James Borrell [00:23:27] Pleasure. Thank you.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:29] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Dr. James Borrell. That was fascinating. I knew nothing of enset before I started the week and now, I know a whole lot more. All right. I’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!