Ethiopia's Banana-Like Enset Is Potentially a Climate Superfood That Can Reduce Global Hunger

Scientists predict the fruit, dubbed 'false banana,' can feed more than 100 million people across the globe.

enset next to bananas

James Borrell / Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The banana has spread from its Southeast Asian origins to brighten supermarkets all over the world. But the enset (Ensete ventricosum), a relative that looks so similar it’s sometimes called the “false banana,” has never expanded beyond its birthplace in southwestern Ethiopia. 

Yet now, as the climate crisis puts pressure on staple crops around the world, the “false banana” may have a chance at some real attention. A new study published in Environmental Research Letters finds that the fruit could feed as many as 111.5 million more people in Africa.

"This is a crop that can play a really important role in addressing food security and sustainable development,” study co-author Dr. Wendawek Abebe of Ethiopia's Hawassa University, says in a statement emailed to Treehugger. 

Changing Climate, Changing Crops

Climate change is already having a negative impact on food security by raising temperatures, shifting rain patterns, and increasing the frequency of some extreme weather events, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If it continues, low-income consumers are especially at risk, with one to 183 million more people at risk from hunger if emissions are not rapidly reduced. Africa in particular faces challenges, as the climate crisis is predicted to alter the distribution and yield of staple crops there, the study authors wrote.

“We know that lots of crop distributions are going to change under climate change, with huge impacts on farmers – what people grow now, might not be viable in 50 years,” study co-author  Dr. James Borrell of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew tells Treehugger in an email. “This is going to be a substantial and very uncomfortable change, and we need to find ways to help people, particularly those that are less affluent and more vulnerable.”  

One way to address this challenge is by introducing new crops to the mix. That’s where the enset comes in.

Unlike the banana, enset fruit is not edible, according to BBC News. Instead, the roots and stems are fermented to make porridge and bread. As such, it serves as a starch staple for 20 million Ethiopians. It was the Ethiopian members of the research team who first had the idea to investigate the potential of expanding its reach.

"This research really shows the value of enset for Ethiopians,” Abebe said.


James Borrell / Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

 The ‘Tree Against Hunger’

Researchers thought the enset might be a good solution to climate-related food insecurity because it has several unique characteristics, Borrell said. 

  1. It’s propagated clonally, meaning new plants can be quickly grown from cuttings.
  2. It grows year-round.
  3. It’s a perennial that increases in size.

It’s ready availability means that it is already a local tool against food insecurity, earning it the name “the tree against hunger,” according to the study.

“It’s like a savings account of food, or an insurance policy,” Borrell says. “It buffers seasonal food shortages.”

The researchers also thought there was hope to expand its range because it grows in the wild across eastern and southern Africa. To test this, they modeled its potential distribution both now and as the climate continues to change. They found it had the potential to expand its range by a factor of 12 currently and a factor of 19 if bred with wild varieties. While the climate crisis could curtail its potential range from 37% to 52% by 2070, it would still do well in the Ethiopian Highlands, the Lake Victoria region, and the Drakensberg Range in southern Africa. It’s helpful that the plant can handle conditions from hot and dry areas to higher elevations that see frost. All told, if bred with wild genes it could feed an additional 87.2 to 111.5 million people, 27.7 to 33 million of them in parts of Ethiopia where it does not currently grow.

The researchers don’t necessarily think that the enset would replace the staple crops of other regions, Borrell says.

 “[W]e’re rather thinking about enset having a role as an emergency, famine food,” he explains. “In some regions farmers have half a dozen enset, and they are available in a crisis. This approach could be much more accessible.”

Women harvesting enset

James Borrell / Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

A ‘Great Botanical Mystery’

So if the enset is such a good defense against food security, why isn’t it cultivated more widely already? The answer to that, Borrell says, is “a great botanical mystery.” 

“Normally, when plants are really useful, they spread,” he says.

It’s possible the enset was geographically isolated by Ethiopia’s high elevation status as the “roof of Africa.” It’s also possible that the cultural knowledge of how to actually use the plant was the limiting factor. 

The cultural component also means there are ethical concerns with spreading the enset beyond its range. Borrell says sharing it with other countries would require the permission of the Ethiopian government, since it is part of the country’s heritage. 

“The indigenous knowledge associated with it is very important too – cultivation is complicated, skills are needed, processing involve[s] harvest techniques and fermentation to make it edible. So how do we debate sharing that knowledge fairly and equitably?” he asks.

Further, there is always a risk with introducing new crops to subsistence farmers because their lives and livelihoods depend on what they grow. The new plants have to actually be helpful. 

But the example of the enset shows the potential of new crops as a climate solution. 

“This study highlights the value of underutilised crops, and the wider potential they have to help us tackle challenges like food insecurity, particularly under climate change. These are grand challenges of the 21st century,” Borrell says. “Enset, has a suite of incredibly useful traits, but is just one species – we hope this will catalyse greater interest in locally important crops.”

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View Article Sources
  1. Koch, O., et al. "Modelling Potential Range Expansion of an Underutilised Food Security Crop in Sub-Saharan Africa." Environmental Research Letters, vol. 17, no. 1, 2021, p. 014022., doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac40b2

  2. Mbow, Cheikh, et al. "Food Security." Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,