(subhead: "The drought-resistant wild enset plant yields food that can be preserved for decades. Now experts and aid groups are taking notice.")
Even as drought and starvation threaten millions of Ethiopians, farmers in this southern province [Welkite] say they aren't worried about hunger, thanks to an ancient but little understood agricultural weapon that experts say could one day play a role in alleviating African famines.
Clustered around nearly every mud-walled hut in these highlands are the tall, big-leafed stalks of enset trees, also known as false banana, which grow wild in eastern and southern Africa but are believed to be harvested only in Ethiopia.
The power of the plant lies in its drought-resistant leaves and corm, which, when pulverized, yields a white, cheese-like substance that can be cooked into a flat bread or stored in underground fermentation pits for up to 20 years.
"It's always there to feed my family," said farmer Meded Kemal, 35.
He recalled a drought five years ago that wiped out his small fields of maize, chickpeas, sorghum and teff, the most popular Ethiopian grain. Only the enset survived.
Even after the family exhausted its underground supply, it didn't go hungry. It simply knocked down a few more enset stalks, which, unlike other crops, can be harvested any time of year.
"One plant can feed the family for a week," said farmer Tedesa Habte, 45, dwarfed by a field of 300 of the plants, which grow as tall as 30 feet. "We never go hungry."
Nearly 15 million people in southern Ethiopia, including the Gurage, Sidama and Hadiya tribes, rely on enset for most of their nutrition, though the plant is relatively low in protein and can taste bitter.
The stalks take seven years to reach maturity and harvesting is tricky. But handled properly, the plants, dubbed "the shield" by farmers, can help save lives, as they did for many of the southern tribes during Ethiopia's severe famines of 1973 and 1984.
Enset harvesting is thought to date back thousands of years, but only lately has the plant drawn increased attention from agricultural experts and aid groups looking for long-term solutions to Ethiopia's drought and hunger problem.
"I'm so excited about this plant," said Yihenew Zewdie, an Ethiopian food security expert for the United Nations' World Food Program. "It could be an answer to hunger. But it's not been given the attention it deserves."
Enset research and development has largely been overshadowed by the focus on the more traditional grains, such as maize, that are favored by Western aid groups and relief organizations.
The Ethiopian government recognized enset as a national crop nearly a decade ago, theoretically clearing the way for state-funded research and assistance. But the Agriculture Ministry remains more interested in boosting production and export of cash crops such as coffee and flowers, which have the potential to boost government coffers.
The Washington-based American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, which attempted to bring attention to enset in a 1997 report, called it the "most unstudied domesticated crop in Africa" and criticized policymakers for failing to see the plant's "famine buffer potential."
Several privately funded agricultural groups, including Farm Africa, have launched pilot projects to teach farmers in other parts of Ethiopia about the benefits of enset. Despite a promising reception, most of the projects have stalled for lack of funds, Zewdie said.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called enset an important crop, but said research had been hindered by the fact that the plant is still commonly harvested only in Ethiopia, meaning local researchers can't benefit from the experience of other countries.
"Our research is limited by what we can do here, and our research capability is limited," he said.
Though Western governments and humanitarian groups have provided generous emergency food aid to Ethiopia for years, Meles said, there has been less support for research and development projects to tackle the root of the country's drought and hunger problems, such as the need for new irrigation systems.
His government is the latest to struggle with Ethiopia's chronic food shortages.
"People here are always on the precipice," said Paulette Jones, World Food Program spokeswoman in Addis Ababa, the capital.
Every year since 1999, 7 million to 13 million Ethiopians have required food assistance. About 2.6 million now face starvation if rains don't begin in April and emergency supplies don't reach them, Jones said.
The recurring droughts are particularly vexing given the fact that annual rains in Ethiopia's highlands provide more than 75% of the water flowing into the Nile, where it eventually heads to Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia is known as the "water tower" of East Africa.
Some experts say expanding enset cultivation could be cheaper and simpler than building massive irrigation projects to distribute water around the country.
In addition to its ability to withstand moderate drought and be preserved underground for years, it can be fed to livestock.
Because it is high in carbohydrates and low in protein, it should ideally be supplemented with other foods such as meat.
Nearly every part of the plant is usable. Fibers from the stalks are strong enough to make ropes, baskets and mats, and are even used in construction. The giant leaves serve as vessels for cooking and food storage.
But a large-scale introduction of enset to other parts of Ethiopia, or even other African countries, will require time and planning, said land and agricultural economist Desalegn Rahmato, former head of the Ethiopian Forum for Social Studies.
"It's a lot more complex than simply replacing one crop for another," he said. "Food habits are very difficult to change. Food comes with the culture and tradition."
Farmers also must be trained in cultivation and processing of the plants. Because enset takes years to mature, farmers must stagger plantings and locations.
The harvesting process has remained largely the same for hundreds of years. In many parts of the country, the work is done entirely by women.
Stalks are uprooted by rocking them back and forth in the soil until they tip over. The outer leaves are removed and scraped with wooden tools, releasing a white, watery liquid that dries to a powder. The powder can later be mixed with water to create a porridge called bulla.
The underground corm is cut and pounded into a wet, white pulp, which is wrapped in leaves and buried in the dirt to ferment for at least two weeks. When ready, the enset resembles a tire-sized roll of mozzarella, which can sustain a family for months. The white substance is crumbled and rolled into a dough and then baked or roasted into a bread called kocho.
"It's a lot of work, but we know how because it's been passed down for generations," said Habte, the farmer.
Despite the lack of formal research, enset consumption is steadily growing in Ethiopia. Once derided as "peasant food," kocho and bulla are now popular dishes in Addis Ababa.
"Now everyone is eating it," said Mulunesh Gabre, 38, an enset vendor at the capital's bustling Merkato open-air bazaar. "God knows why," she added with a laugh.
For many, the chewy, fibrous bread is an acquired taste. Many find it bitter-smelling.
But kocho has become a staple of fine restaurants in the capital, particularly as a side dish to kitfa, another southern Ethiopian specialty, which consists of raw hamburger mixed with butter. The dishes are especially popular at wedding receptions.
At Kemal's farm, his three daughters giggled and wrinkled their noses when asked whether they ever got tired of eating enset, which constitutes the bulk of their diet.
Then the father answered for them: "They don't have a choice."