Enset (Ensete ventricosum (Welw.) Cheesman) is a tall herbaceous plant from tropical Eastern Africa related to the banana. Enset is grown in Ethiopia for its starch-rich basal pseudostems (trunks) and their swollen underground parts, called corms, which are an important staple food for the inhabitants of the southern and south-western areas of the country. In Ethiopia, enset corms and pseudostems play a major role in food security, and they are also occasionally fed to livestock (Desta et al., 2004). The sustainability of enset farming systems is currently endangered by the bacterial wilt disease, so the future of the crop is in question. However, enset grows in many tropical countries and its corms and pseudostems are an underexploited high-energy feed resource.
Enset, also called false banana, is a close relative of the banana tree (Musa sp.) and morphologically similar. Both are large herbaceous and monocarpic plants that flower only once and then die. The enset plant is taller and thicker than the banana plant, and its fruits are not edible (Tsegaye et al., 1992). Enset is a perennial plant that reaches a height of 4-11 m. Its root system is adventitious. The trunk (pseudostem) is made of overlapping leaf sheaths. The underground and basal swollen parts of these leaf sheaths form the corms. The corms are 0.7-1.8 m long and 1.5-2.5 m in diameter at maturity (Tsegaye et al., 1992). Corms represent about 25% of the total DM of the plant (Fekadu et al., 1997). The leaves are spirally arranged, emerging from the apex of the corms. Leaf blades are entire, 5 m long x 1.5 m broad, with a strongly channelled midrib and numerous lateral veins. The leaves are bright to dark green in colour (Tsegaye et al., 1992). The inflorescence grows at the apex and droops out of the centre of the pseudostem. Flowers are unisexual, very similar to those of the banana (Musa sativa): female flowers develop proximally, male flowers developing at the distal end of the inflorescence. The fruits are oblong-obovate berries, 8-15 cm x 3-4.5 cm, orange when mature, rather dry and fibrous. The berries contain 1 to 10 large (1.5-2.5 cm in diameter) black seeds (Tsegaye et al., 1992).
Enset corms and pseudostems are a staple food in Ethiopia. Enset is also grown in North and Central Vietnam, where the growing point is used as a vegetable (Tsegaye et al., 1992). The corms and lower parts of pseudostems are scraped to extract a fibrous and starchy pulp used to prepare popular nourishing specialities (kocho, bulla, amicho) (Brandt et al., 1997; Kassa et al., 1993; Tsegaye et al., 1992). The pulp is fermented in a pit from 2 weeks to 18 months. The fermented pulp is mixed with water and sieved to make a dough, which is rolled and baked between enset leaves in an oven or on an open fire.
The video below shows the harvesting of enset:
Enset is of outmost importance for Ethiopian smallholders: in 2006, about 20 million people were relying on enset production for their staple food (Joshi, 2006). However, a bacterial wilt (Xanthomonas campestris), was first reported in 1960, and has become increasingly rampant since 2000. The disease hampers enset production and the enset population is decreasing (Deribe Gemiyo Talore, 2015). By 2015, it was reported that 80% of enset farms were contaminated (Africa Rising, 2016). The declining production of enset is a threat to food security in Ethiopia.
Enset is a multipurpose plant. After the pulp has been extracted, the leaf sheaths can provide good quality fibre to make rope, baskets, mats and sacks. Enset landraces with peculiar leaf and pseudostem colours are grown worldwide for ornamental purposes. Enset is reported to have many ethnomedicinal uses (Tsegaye et al., 1992). In addition to food, enset provides valuable feed for livestock: all parts but the roots can be fed to farm animals. Enset leaves, in particular, are widely used in enset-producing regions and are available during the dry season (Fekadu et al., 1997). In the Bale highlands of South-Eastern Ethiopia in the late 1990s-early 2000s, several enset-based systems were coexisting: livestock-enset, enset-livestock and enset-livestock-cereals. In these systems, livestock provided manure to the enset crop while enset provided crop residues to livestock. About 85% of the farmers fed enset leaves, corms, pseudostems, fluid (moccaa) and processed by-products (raw kocho) to livestock during the dry season. The enset leaves, corms and sheaths were pruned and chopped. However, supplementation with enset products did not significantly reduce cattle mortality. In livestock-enset system and livestock-enset -cereal systems, enset crop residues are consumed soon after harvest and not saved (or only in small amounts) for dry season feeding. On the contrary, grasses from pastures are preserved in range enclosures and do have a significant effect on livestock survival. Enset leaves and by-products could better contribute to alleviate dry-season feed shortages but more farmer awareness regarding preparation methods is needed, as well as better technology to improve the value of enset leaves and by-products as feed supplements (Desta et al., 2004).