Nomonanoto Show

Friday, September 27, 2013

Africa faces over the next decade an ever-increasing need to achieve sustainability in agricultural production. In the Horn of Africa one of the primary obstacles to sustainability has been the threat of famine. Yet, as this important booklet shows, there are parts of Ethiopia that survived famine during the 1980s because of the utilization of enset as part of the subsistence system. Also known as the false banana, enset is very likely the most unstudied domesticated crop in Africa. It helps to feed
approximately ten million people in Ethiopia and Eritrea (in restricted pockets). Given that it figures so importantly in the diet of contemporary Ethiopians and that it has acted as a famine buffer, why has it been so neglected? The answers are complex. They are partly related to cultural perceptions,
politics, and history. This short monograph unwraps much  of the mystery surrounding enset. It explores its history, noting that enset was once much more widespread in Ethiopia.
It also explores its food characteristics and the different agro-economic conditions under which it is grown as an important part of the diet.
Because the development agendas of Western aid agencies still focus on cereal grains, particularly maize, enset continues to be ignored. Even though the Ethiopian government has recently elevated enset to the status of a national crop, it is not clear that this move will propel critical research that is needed to realize its agricultural potential in other regions of Ethiopia. Nor does it ensure that enset
remains an integral part of the subsistence systems where it is already being cultivated successfully.
Over the last seven years, I have closely followed the progress of research on enset. For the most part this research, in addition to work undertaken by Ethiopians, has been initiated and carried out by colleagues in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida.
While initially anthropological in focus, the research has since expanded to include agronomy, soil science, economics, history, and other ancillary sciences. It has also incorporated collaborating scientists from the University of Addis Ababa, Kyoto University, the University of Colorado, and the
Awassa Agricultural Research Center in Ethiopia. In this sense it is an excellent model of interdisciplinary collaboration and interaction.
In the Sub-Saharan Africa Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), we felt there was a need to disseminate the results of preliminary research conducted by the enset research team. Their preliminary research results have important implications for future agricultural development in Ethiopia, as well as for the sustainability of existing enset systems. Also, it is clear that policymakers and agricultural specialists do not understand the plant, its economic potential, its cultural limitations, its famine-buffer potential, and its threatened sustainability.
To overcome these deficiencies in general knowledge, we organized a full-day symposium in April 1997 under AAAS sponsorship at its Washington headquarters. Experts from institutions that invest in agricultural development in Africa and pertinent Ethiopian scientists were invited to participate
in the symposium. Representatives from JICA, USAID, the World Bank, and Catholic Relief Services provided critical reactions to the papers presented by Brandt, Shigeta, Yntiso, McCabe, and Hiebsch. The discourse was lively and pointed. Discussion focused on a number of key issues, such as the cultural stigmas attached to enset food products, the dangers of assuming wholesale transferability of enset agriculture to other regions in Ethiopia, and problems being driven by increasing populations and shrinking farmland in some enset producing areas.
We at AAAS are delighted with this product from the symposium. It opens the door for further exploration into one of Africa’s unknown food resources in a format that is clear and easy to understand. It is set up in such a way that key questions about enset are answered concisely and without technical mystification. We also refer the reader to the AAAS Sub-Saharan Africa Program web site (, where this publication will be found with each question hypertextlinked to its answer.
Peter Schmidt
Sub-Saharan Africa Program