Ethiopia needs lots of enset types, not just one supercrop
If plant breeders want to do something useful to help the eleven million Ethiopians who eat enset, the one thing they shouldn't do is to try and develop one supercrop. Instead, Almaz Negash pleads in her PhD thesis for a biotechnology which helps the Ethiopians to maintain more clones of the crop.
The plant, which is related to the banana, is so important because the Ethiopian farmers have so many clones: Negash counted 65, but there are many more. Negash herself comes from Ethiopia. The reason she chose to do research on enset is because she knows from experience how important the plant is for the Ethiopians. "For us enset is just as important as bread and potatoes are for the Dutch. It is a staple food. Some poor people are totally dependent on this crop." Enset is only eaten in Ethiopia. Women farmers take the starchy pulp out of the stems and make it into flour. They then make bread from the flour, although it is a bread that is generally not appreciated by non-Ethiopians due to its bitter taste.
Men and women
In her thesis Negash describes how men and women have different opinions as to what constitutes good enset. "Men cultivate the crop, and they therefore tend to look at how it grows. Women process the enset, and are more interested in the kind of bread it makes." This division of labour has led to 'male' and 'female' varieties of the plant: those which grow well and ripen quickly and those which are easier to process once harvested. Enset is also used as a medicine; certain types are used to help women giving birth, where labour is difficult.
Research institutes and development organisations can best be of service to the farmers by helping them to maintain the existing diversity. "They could help with a back up system," suggests Negash, "To make sure that disease and new popular varieties do not threaten the present diversity."
Negash will receive her PhD on 26 September. She has been supervised by Anke Niehof, Professor of Sociology of Consumers and Households.