Enset: BBC asks if it could be a wondercrop, but it can lead to malnutrition

A third of the population of Ethiopia – 30 million people – live below the poverty line, earning less than $1.25 per day.

In Wolayita, in the highlands of the south, 90% of people live in isolated rural settlements practising subsistence agriculture on small parcels of land.

Diets are very restricted, with very little protein or essential vitamins: many farmers rely on the starchy staple crop enset (“false banana”). A recent BBC article questions if enset could be a 'wondercrop' in the face of the climate crisis but with a low nutritional value the solution is more complex. Enset does have many advantages, as our Country Director for Ethiopia, Aklilu Dogisso explains below:

"Enset (false banana) is widely grown in South West Ethiopia. In addition to being used as food crop it also has cultural values, where families with many enset trees have high prestige in the community. Families that have a larger plot of land covered with enset trees easily survive the hunger months. The plant is also drought resistant in comparison with other food crops.

"The crop can also be fed to animals during times of drought, as it stores a high volume of water in its trunks. Its leaves are also used as baking materials for local bread and wrapping material for farm produces like cheese, butter."

“It is said to be a plant of which no part is lost - leaves, trunk, tuber, root - all are used in one way or another.”

Aklilu Dogisso Ethiopia

However, we must be cautious: it is important to look at what you eat, not just how much you eat. We have seen how farmers can plant this crop on the edges of their farm and use enset when needed, when other food sources are limited. But, they must grow a variety of crops which fulfil their nutritional needs, as enset is low in nutritional value. Livestock also plays an important role in Ethiopia’s economy, society and culture, and the country has the highest cattle population in Africa. But despite the enormous potential of the dairy sector to improve lives, productivity is very low.

What are we doing to transform nutrition in Ethiopia?

In July 2020, JOA launched the Dairy for Nutrition and Income (DaNI) project with Ripple Effect, to improve nutrition and incomes for smallholder farmers in Wolayita. Farmers were to be trained in food production, and in animal management and feeding regimes to improve the health and productivity of their livestock. Improved volumes of high-quality milk would be stored and marketed. And local cattle will be improved by crossbreeding them with the Jersey cow, which is well-suited to east African conditions. To target the most vulnerable members of these communities, 70% of the project participants would be women.

The first project year was difficult, with communities facing the twin crises of the pandemic and climate crisis. The belg seasonal rains failed in February and March. People in the project area are almost entirely unvaccinated, so all activities are being delivered by staff using Ripple Effect’s revised, Covid-safe operating procedures, which include wearing PPE, social distancing, and reduced training group sizes.

Despite this, the project team recruited 2,940 smallholder farmers, organising them into 145 self help groups. Training in improved animal management is well underway, with improvements in the condition of cattle already visible. And capping two springs has brought reliable, clean water to 85% of families – a vital part of good nutrition.

In the second year of the project, the focus has shifted to the sale of surplus produce, chiefly milk, butter and cheese, and homegrown fruit and vegetables. Farmers are engaging with local markets, and savings schemes give them access to capital to re-invest, and to build their resilience to “shock” events. In the final year of the project, as dairy cows become healthier and better fed we will link farmers to breeding services, including the provision of artificial insemination, enabling them to proactively crossbreed to improve genetic quality.

Learning and passing on farming skills

Abebech and Kelta in southern Ethiopia with desho fodder grass they will shred as feed for their cow.

Kelta Alambo Bunare, 40, and his wife Abebech Alebo Asha have four children aged between 10 and 18, and he’s a member of the Melkam (“Looks Good”) self help group in the DaNI project in Ethiopia. A neighbour of theirs was a member of an earlier Ripple Effect project, and helped the family to improve their vegetable garden and produce forage for their livestock, a valuable process called “copy farming”. When the DaNI project was announced, Kelta was one of the first smallholder farmers who applied to join.

The family’s farm, which is about one hectare in total, provides all their income. Through long experience they have developed a range of different crops including vegetables, cereal and roots. They use the milk from their cow for butter, cheese and yoghurt production as well as for home consumption, and the manure to improve the soil organically. Formal training from Ripple Effect has allowed them to consolidate and improve their farm, learning how to best manage their available space and resources to maximise production.

In the first year of the project Kelta particularly valued the training in basic animal freedoms, which enabled him to ensure his dairy cow is healthy and happy – and productive. He is excited to learn more about the potential for crossbreeding their local cow with Jersey genetics, to improve productivity and milk quality.

“I've learned so much since joining the Melkam group. I have been trained about dairy cow management, and how to support dairy farming as a business. Farming and livestock is my life, my family’s life – I want to learn as much as I can.”

Kelta Alambo Bunare Ethiopia