Women in sub-Saharan Africa feed their families, their neighbors, and their regions, performing the majority of farming, preparing the majority of meals, and also making the majority of nutritional decisions: they produce up to 80 percent of food.
Tadesse Kippie Kanshie wrote that, among the Gedeo, a tribe native to southern Ethiopia, women generally choose what crop to grow, with the exception of cash crops like coffee, which men oversee. Women traditionally process enset into fermented foods, a labor-intensive procedure that requires between 5 and 7 hours of work for each woman; occasionally men assist, although this depends on the region and local tradition.
Unfortunately, women in Ethiopia and many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa still tend to be marginalized: reversing this discrimination is a slow process, despite many efforts to redress it, such as Ethiopia’s Family Code, in which women have equal property rights to their husbands during marriage. Women also sell products made of the enset they’ve processed. In “Enset is a Good Thing,” a documentary about women and enset in Ethiopia’s Jimma Zone, the filmmakers note that enset-producing women control the money that they earn from selling enset products, from rope to baskets to food.
According to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), roughly 40 percent of the Ethiopian population is undernourished. Children are especially vulnerable to hunger, and the effects of malnourishment can stay with them for their entire lives, such as brain damage and lowered immune defenses, as well as osteoporosis and high blood pressure. But because enset is a drought-resistant crop that requires few inputs, growing it can an easy way for farmers to improve their food security, helping prevent child malnutrition.
Well-nourished mothers also mean healthier childhoods and adulthoods. A study published in 2008 by The Journal of Nutrition suggests that pregnant women who rely on fermented enset as their primary source of nutrition have higher levels of vitamin B12 and folate than women who primarily eat maize. This helps prevent B12 anemia, which can cause many problems, like fatigue, cognitive problems, and diarrhea. Fermented enset combats iron-deficiency anemia, which researchers from Addis Ababa University say is common among women throughout Ethiopia: a 2006 study in the British Journal of Nutrition suggests that fermented foods improve iron absorption. Iron-deficiency anemia causes premature delivery and low birth weight; it also can lead to excessive bleeding and death during childbirth.
There are many reasons that women farmers value the cultivation of enset: for maternal-and-child nutrition, for the creation of traditional medicines, and for food security. The potential for an increase in financial autonomy, along with the benefits of decreased child hunger and improved maternal and child health, make a strong case for the benefits of enset farming, especially for women.