Sustainable Farming : Ancient Enset Based Cultures of South West Ethiopia

Enset is a plant that resembles a banana tree that grows in South West Ethiopia. Many of the diverse ethnic groups that preside in that region cultivate the Ensete as major food source. It is suspected that enset cultivation has been going on for as long as 5,000 years. The Enset is not just a major food source. Every part of this large vegetable is used to sustain these communities in many important ways.

Introducing the Enset Plant:

Enset is sometimes called false banana tree because of its resemblance to the banan tree. But its fruit is not edible. Enset ‘s scientific name is Ensete Ventricosum. Both the enset and the banana tree belong to the family Musaceae. But enset belongs to the genus Enset and the banana to the genus Musa. There are other differences between these two plants. The enset is a much larger tree growing up to 10 meters in height and the stem could have diameter of 1 meter. The enset is single stemmed. Its leaves are more erect than a banana tree and are larger. The wild variety enset plant grows in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, but it is only in Ethiopia that this plant has been domesticated.

As shown on the diagram the part where we usually find the stem in other plants is not a stem but a pseudo stem made up of leaf sheaths. The actual stem on this plant is a small section between the pseudo stem and the corm. The corm is the large under ground bulb that is filled with starch.

Diagram of the Enset

The Tree Against Hunger

The enset takes four to six years to fully mature so planting is staggered in order to have a steady supply of food. Cattle manure is used as a fertilizer. Harvesting is done right before it starts flowering because once the enset starts flowering the plant will start using up all its starch and then dies soon after. Enset is a very versatile vegetable as you may have gathered from the name‘The tree against Hunger.’ It is able to with stand draught, flooding, and hail storms.Ethiopia has been prone to periodic famines for centuries. But the enset growing cultures are known to be some of the few regions that have dodged most of these severe famnes. The credit goes to enset that seem to be affected mildly and recover quickly.

The various ethnic groups use the enset for food in varying degrees. For instance the Gurages, the ethnic group which I belong to and the Sidama ethnic groups use the plant as a major staple, while the groups such as the Hadya, Gamo, Wolayita on the other hand use it only as a support food.

Kocho: Extraction and Fermentation of the Starchy Eddible Material from Enset

Which part of the plant is eaten? You ask. The answer is the starchy material extracted from the pseudo stem, stem and the corm. It is back breaking work to extract this starchy material from the leaf sheaths and it is women who do this work. Men do the planting and uprooting the plant for processing. The starchy material that is extracted out of the leaf sheaths is called kocho. Using a bamboo scraper the women painstakingly scrape each leave sheath. It has to be fermented in a dug up pit in the ground. Young men and older boys dig up this pit. The pit is lined with enset leaves and filled with the kocho. Some yeast is thrown in and mixed. Then it is covered up with more leaves and rocks are placed on top. It stays there to ferment for a month or more. Then it is ready to be made into bread and eaten.

The above description is the simplified version. A more elaborate processes is involved, Yeast like material is added and the kocho dough is opened up and stirred once in a while. There are various types of kocho and each type has its own recipe for processing. It is similar to wine making. The longer it ferments the better the test.

The corm is also processed to extract another starchy material called amicho. Amicho does not have to be fermented, It is boiled and eaten as a potato. Another food that is extracted from the stem and leaf sheaths is known as ‘Bulla.’ Bulla is squizzed out of the pulp from the stem and leaf sheaths. A variety of porridge, flat bread, and other dishes can be made out of it. The liquid can be evaporated to give chalk white powdery material that can be stored for years without spoiling.This is the most sought after and valuable food from the enset. Another name for bulla is “Atmit.” Atmit made into a drink is very popular throughout Ethiopia. It is considered a powerful nutrient which boosts the immune system and strengthens the body.

To find out about the many uses of the enset plant and how it is used sustainably by millions of people in Ethiopia go to the second part of this hub at Sustainable Use of Resources by Enset Cultures of Ethiopia

Resources Used to Write this Hub

Ayemelele, 1997, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia by Ato Tesefa Gebreyes Zemeder Kebed, A book about the history and culture of the Gurage ethnic group

The Lost Crops of Africa, 2001, washington DC,National Academey of Science

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Comments 6 comments

Jim Bryan profile image

Jim Bryan 6 years ago from Austin, TX

Informative and well-researched, good job on an interesting Hub.

Mr. Happy profile image

Mr. Happy 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

Very interesting indeed!

lelanew55 profile image

lelanew55 6 years ago Author

Thank you for stopping by Jim Bryan and thank you for the compliment.

lelanew55 profile image

lelanew55 6 years ago Author

Mr. Happy thank you for stopping by.

Eurazian 6 years ago

That's really interesting. I wonder if you can tell me: Since so many of the other ethnic groups in Ethiopia rely on grains as their staple foods (such as teff, barley, sorghum, etc), is there any reason why the Gurage and Sidama have stuck with the Enset as their main food source?

lelanew55 profile image

lelanew55 6 years ago Author

Thank you for stopping by Eurazian. I am not quite sure the reason why some Southern Ethiopian ethnic groups have made Enset their major staple. There is a theory that a long time ago their was famine in those areas and some people found a fallen enset plant in the woods and saw the starchy material known as amicho. They cooked this material and ate it. They found that it is good and satisfying and started cultivating it for food. Soon they found out it is a plant that resists drought and is very sturdy and so became a major staple.

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