The crop, called enset, could potentially provide greater food security for millions. In the longer term, with the right regulatory and investment support, it may be a new healthy and sustainable ingredient for use in European NPD.
The plant is relatively unknown outside of Ethiopia where it is a staple food for around 20 million people, or a fifth of the population. But research suggests the drought-resistant crop may be able to be grown across a much larger area, potentially feeding more than 100 million people, therefore boosting food security in Ethiopia and other African countries, including Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.
The false banana
Called the false banana plant, typically its core and stem are pulverised, then grated and mashed into a pulp. The pulp is then fermented for about six months and turned into kotcho: a very filling bread-like food.
Its fermentation yields nutritional benefits. It’s very high in calcium and iron and zinc, which are major micronutrient deficiencies in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly among women.
Resilience to climate change
The crop, which is also nicknamed 'the tree against hunger' is also well placed to adapt to the impacts of climate change, which is predicted to seriously affect yields and distribution of staple food crops across Africa and beyond, said study researcher Dr James Borrell, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
“Traditionally, enset didn’t expand beyond southwest Ethiopia because the area where it grows is surrounded by lowlands that are less suited for it,” he said. “But in modern times they don't need to be obstacles. We found there is a lot of potential to grow enset, not only more widely in Ethiopia but also more widely in Africa even taking in the effects of climate change.”
Wild relatives of enset - which are not considered edible - grow as far south as South Africa and also in West Africa, suggesting the plant might be suitable for domestication across a much wider range, he added.
Enset is non-irrigated and does not require modern fertilisers or inputs. It is among the highest yielding crops per hectare in the region. Critically, as a perennial crop, it can be planted and harvested at any time of the year.
The potential benefits of ‘orphan’ crops
Enset is one of 101 high potential crops identified by the African Orphan Crop Consortium. Research attention into so-called 'orphan' or forgotten' crops is growing given our reliance on a few staple crops, said Borrell.
"Our current food system has all its eggs in one basket. Half our calories come from three species: rice, wheat, and maize. If we had a pandemic in one of those crops that would be absolutely catastrophic. Diversifying our species can give us much more resilience for shocks such as disease or climate change or even simply changing tastes.
"Enset is an amazing crop, but there are hundreds of underutilised crops that have amazing potential."
The research added that enset has yet to be adopted outside Ethiopia despite the fact other crops including coffee (Coffea arabica) and finger millet (Eleusine coracana) have been successfully adopted beyond the species' native range.
“At the moment the big obstacle is that no one's ever heard of it,” said Burrell. “It's really good for people to be aware of the amazing richness of crops that we don't know about.”
Modelling potential range expansion of an underutilised food security crop in Sub-Saharan Africa
Environmental Research Letters