A Potential Source of Food and Nutrition Security

Ensete Plant

Enset (Ensete ventricosum) is a large perennial monocarpic herbaceous plant, similar in form and appearance to banana (Musa spp). Referred to as wildepiesang in Afrikaans, motholo in Sepedi and mulala in Tshivenda, enset consist of a pseudostem of overlapping sheaths, large paddle-shaped leaves and produces a massive pendulous inflorescence with banana-like fruits which are inedible. Unlike banana which is cultivated for its sweet and starchy fruits, it is the swollen pseudostem base, leaf sheaths and underground corm (rootstock) of enset that serves as both food feed. Enset is widely distributed in the Eastern, Central and Southern regions of tropical Africa but it has only been domesticated in Ethiopia. The plant comprises six species namely: Ensete glaucum and Ensete superbum in Asia; Ensete gilletii and Ensete homblei in mainland Africa; Ensete ventricosum in Africa and Latin America; as well as Ensete perrieri in Madagascar. The E. ventricosum specie grows wild from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan in the Eastern part of Africa to Angola, South Africa, and Mozambique. In South Africa, E. ventricosum grows in the Limpopo and Kwazulu-Natal provinces. Ethiopia is the main country with long history of enset plantation and many scientists have developed theories that assume enset domestication in Ethiopia to 10 000 years ago. Enset is a highly drought tolerant crop with a broad agro-ecological distribution and is cultivated solely with household-produced inputs. Moreover, the fruit has an immense potential for small-scale low external input and organic farming systems mostly in the light of climate change. Due to its drought resistant nature, enset is widely spread in some African countries as it adapts easily to changes in altitude, soil and climate.

Enset cultivation in Sub-Saharan Africa

Enset is a drought resistant plant that is cultivated on more than 200 000 hectares in the highlands of Central, Eastern and Southern Africa, growing at an average temperature of 10 – 21 °C. Early scholars have reported that the cultivation of enset in Ethiopia was done by indigenous hunter gatherers. The crop usually grows at areas with high relative humidity and the Ethiopian highlands have been considered as the primary center of origin for enset cultivation. Cultivation of enset is usually done in November, December, and January after the big rains and at higher altitudes ranging from 1500 – 3100 m. At an altitude of 1600 – 2000 m, the small shoots take about one year to develop; at 2400 – 3000 m it takes one and half to two years; and above altitudes of 3000 m it takes more than two years.

During the development of flower and fruits, the plant utilizes most of its stored carbohydrates, resulting in its death. Thus, harvesting of enset for food and fiber is done before flowering. Enset can be harvested after 6 – 7 years of cultivation, although harvesting of the plant can take place at any stage during periods of shortage of food or animal feed. Currently, the plant is mostly used for food, animal forage, fiber, construction materials, medicine and cultural practices. However, the growth, sustainability and distribution of the crop is threatened by several biotic (bacterial wilt, the enset root mealy bug, nematodes, fungi and pests) and non-biotic factors (soil fertility and type, amount and distribution of rainfall as well as altitude).

Nutritional Properties of the Enset Plant: Leaves, Pseudostem and Corm (Rootstock)

The Ethiopian population rely mostly on enset for their daily diet. There exist differences in the nutritional composition of the enset cultivars and the different botanical parts used as food, with the crop known to be a poor source of proteins and some minerals. The corm and starchy pulp obtained from enset can be processed into products such as kocho, bulla and amicho with beneficial nutritional and antioxidant properties. Kocho is a non-dehydrated dough-like fermented product from the mixture of its pseudostem pulp scrapings and pulverized tuber. Bulla is a high-grade product made up of a dehydrated mixture of the juice from the scrapped leaf sheaths, pulverized corm and grated stalk of the inflorescence and usually prepared as a porridge. Bulla is a good source of energy, essential amino acids, and minerals such as zinc, magnesium, copper and manganese. Amicho is a boiled form of the corm chunk of the younger plants. Furthermore, the inflorescence is a consumer’s delicacy in Malawi and the flower bud is consumed as a boiled vegetable in many parts of Southeast Asia. Studies have shown that the composition of starch in enset pseudostem is comparable to sorghum, while the nutritional content of kocho and bulla are sufficient for human requirements and similar in extent to cereal flours. It has been estimated that enset-based food products provide double to 20 times more calories than cereals. However, due to its nutritional status as a poor source of protein, the daily recommended intake of essential amino acids cannot be obtained by depending on enset as a sole daily diet. Supplementation with other protein rich foods is thus required.

Enset and Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa

Enset is called the tree against hunger because it is used as a staple and co-staple food for millions of Ethiopians. The fruit is the main crop of a sustainable indigenous African system which guarantees food security in a country that is severely food deficient. More than 20% of the population of Ethiopia depend on the plant for food, with the plant having a potential to feed an estimated 100 million people in the next 40 years. Enset represents 65% of crop production in Ethiopia and its productivity is relatively higher than that of other crops. A wide adaptation of enset to altitude, soil and climate has increased the cultivation of the crop and its domestication. Though its fruits are not consumed unlike banana, other parts of the plant such as the leaf, pseudostem and corm are currently processed to food and animal feed. The inflorescence which has been reported to be a consumer’s delicacy, can be cooked and eaten. In South Africa, kocho can be used to produce traditional bread such as ledombolo; bulla to produce soft porridge and mageu; while other parts of enset can be processed and consumed as vegetables. As food prices continue to soar due to global inflation, enset can help mitigate the growing hunger and food insecurity in South Africa. However, more research is needed on the utilization of the crop and its consumer acceptability in South Africa and in other African countries where not consumed.The full article is for subscribed members only. To view the full article please subscribe. It’s FREE!Log In Register

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