14 June 2023

Protecting the future with Ethiopia's endangered crops

Across much of Ethiopia the future of food security is uncertain, but what if the diversity in one little-heard of crop could teach us how to secure that future?

An Ethiopian landscape of hills, villages and trees

Ethiopia is spectacularly diverse, brimming with culture, biodiversity, and breath-taking landscapes. Yet for many, it is most familiar as a country besieged by famine, as a result of the devastating food insecurity of the 1970s and 80s.

This is unfortunate, because Ethiopia is incredibly rich in agrobiodiversity – the diversity of plants we eat and use – being the origin for more crops than perhaps any other country in Africa. This diversity brings resilience – to climate uncertainty, pests and diseases or a volatile market for cash crops – and it is important that this diversity is conserved to maintain food security in the future.

A misty scene over a huge valley shows silhouettes of trees and rooftops
Stunning morning landscapes like this are commonplace in Ethiopia, where mist takes time to lift from valleys containing farms, villages and forest. © Sophie Jago, RBG Kew

Tree against hunger

One indigenous Ethiopian crop that exemplifies resilience is enset, known locally as the ‘tree against hunger’.

Enset can be seen as a bank account of food as it is a perennial which grows larger each year until harvested, meaning you can leave it to continue growing if it is not needed. It is also more flexible than most crops as it can be planted or harvested at any time of year.

Enset is particularly drought tolerant, and can be rapidly clonally propagated and highly productive in a small area of land. It can also be stored for over six months after being processed. However, enset is only grown in south-west Ethiopia, where despite being the staple of 20 million people, it is relatively easy to overlook globally.

For this reason, it has lacked international research attention, until recently. There are now increasing numbers of projects focused on enset, including those run by Ripple Effect in the Dawuro Zone that support enset cultivation, and by our team here at Kew.

Three researchers are dwarfed by an enormous enset plant, which has huge leaves sprouting from a thick wooded trunk
Kew research assistant Sophie Jago and partners spot a towering enset plant in rural Ethiopia. © RBG Kew

Tradition and diversity

At RBG Kew we have been working on a project, funded by the Ellis Goodman Foundation, to conserve the diversity of enset in communities living around Kafa Biosphere Reserve in South West Ethiopia. These communities rely on enset as a staple food and often grow a wide range of different landraces (varieties) that have different properties. Some differ in taste, others are used for fibre, or grow particularly large. Certain landraces are especially drought or disease tolerant, and a few are believed to have medicinal values.

Through maintaining many different varieties of enset on their farms, farmers are increasing their resilience, whilst also providing an important conservation service. This diversity increases their capacity to adapt to changing conditions in the future, ensuring that enset can continue to be relied upon as the ‘tree against hunger.’

As part of the project we visited local farms to learn about how they grow enset and the different landraces grown. Speaking to farmers about these landraces provides an insight into the wealth of important knowledge they hold.

This knowledge is as much in need of conservation as the landraces themselves. Farmers can identify unique landraces that, to an untrained eye, can look identical. They can tell you what function each landrace is best for. Which food types is a particular landrace used for, does it have medicinal properties, does it make good rope, is it disease resistant, is it already being lost in the local area, and more.

Farmers examine an enormous plant from its base, they are dwarfed by massive leaves, each as tall as a human
Identifying enset landraces with the expertise of Ethiopian farmers © Sophie Jago, RBG Kew

After learning about local farming techniques, we organised to meet community groups to begin surveys using a Four Cell Method to work out which landraces are rarest among the communities.

This method allows each landrace to be categorised based on whether it is grown by many or few farmers and whether it is grown in large or small quantities. Our in-country team has now surveyed over 500 farmers from 22 communities identifying 175 farmer-recognised landraces, of which 57 could be considered ‘critically endangered’ and in need of conservation efforts.

Interestingly, the concept of ‘critically endangered’ does not exist yet for crops – something we are also working to change.

These 57 landraces were lost entirely from most communities and where they did occur, it was mostly in very small quantities. When speaking to community members about the loss in diversity of landraces many will explain that it is difficult to add new landraces to their farms, but that they prefer to grow many different landraces as they have different strengths and uses. Some farmers have even stated that growing more landraces will benefit their grandchildren and that it is important for future food security.

Farmers and researchers stand around a collection of notes
Gaining the specialist knowledge of Ethiopian farmers was the core objective of the surveying. © Sophie Jago, RBG Kew
Researchers stand or sit by a large area of paper on the ground. The paper is covered in sticky notes
The four cell survey method in action © RBG Kew

Tomorrow’s farming, today

In collaboration with Addis Ababa University, we are helping farmers to access these rare varieties and are compensating them for the conservation service they are providing by growing and maintaining these plants.

Often the rarer varieties are not the most productive in present day conditions, so farmers need to be adequately compensated for growing these rare varieties to continue to provide this important conservation service without being burdened by it. We're using a Payments for Agrobiodiversity Conservation Services (PACS) scheme to provide this compensation.

As part of the PACS scheme we held a bidding process. Here, participating communities submit offers stating which landraces they would be willing to conserve on their farms, in what number, and what compensation they require to do so. The process is used to account for different opportunity costs faced by different farmers and to ensure the most cost-effective conservation approach is used while taking into account social equity criteria.

We held workshops with community leaders to explain the competitive tender, so that they could decide whether they wanted to participate. The workshops lasted about four hours and were very successful with community leaders going away with a complete understanding of what the project was trying to achieve, how to complete the bid offers with their communities for the competitive tender, how the selection process would work, and what the next stages were.

Farmers stand in a large circle a speaker at the centre talks
The project's competitive tender process begins © Sophie Jago, RBG Kew
Individuals are linked by a series of strings forming a web between them
The workshop participants create a web of knowledge by pooling their expertise in a string-based exercise. © Sophie Jago, RBG Kew

A hopeful future

The interest in the project was much higher than anticipated with all 22 communities choosing to participate in the competitive tender process. We received offers for 52 out of the 57 rare landraces and the total number of individual plants offered a home was over 45,000. Average compensation costs for these offers were just £2.16 per plant, so for relatively little investment we could conserve a huge diversity of enset landraces.

The next stage of the project will consist of providing selected communities with the corms (underground stems) of the rare landraces that they offered to grow, and monitoring to ensure that the agreed upon landraces are grown before the compensation is provided a year after planting. We also have safeguards in place so that if the agreed upon number of plants is not grown successfully due to factors outside of the communities’ control such as disease, drought, or mole rat damage, they will still receive the agreed compensation.

This process has demonstrated the potential for substantial enset diversity conservation in a cost-effective, equitable and transparent framework. The high interest in the project from local farmers also suggests the approach has the potential to be scaled up, as well as be applied to other crops and deliver outputs relevant to multiple Global Biodiversity Framework targets and Sustainable Development Goals.

For this “tree against hunger” project and others that follow, sustainable in situ conservation of agrobiodiversity, contributions to food security and poverty reduction, maintenance of traditional land management practices of local communities are the possibilities ahead.

Four researchers stand in front of a towering enset plantation
The project team from L to R: Asaminew Woldegebriel (Mizan Tepi University), Adam Drucker (Bioversity International), Sophie Jago (RBG Kew), Bezawit Genanaw (Addis Ababa University)


All of this has been made possible thanks to funding from the Ellis Goodman Foundation and the work of our partners from Mizan Tepi University, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute and Bioversity International.

A group of tall green enset plants growing next to a small area of maize

The Tree Against Hunger

View more Kew stories on enset, an essential crop for an uncertain time

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