There are many reasons that women farmers in the mountains of southwest Ethiopia value the cultivation of enset: for maternal-and-child nutrition, for the manufacture of sellable items, 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.
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.
Financial independence is also healthier for women, as the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) points out. Long regarded as women’s work, enset is laboriously processed to create goods such as rope, medicine, and, of course, food. Katie MacEntee, Jennifer Thompson, Sirawdink Fikreyesus Forsido, and Kemeru Jihad, the makers of the documentary Enset is a Good Thing, note that enset-producing women control the money they earn from selling enset products. The filmmakers report that there was a great deal of interest from agribusiness representatives regarding the production of enset and promotion of food security.
Scaling up enset production could turn it into a cash crop, which may remove it from women’s control, despite the fact that women hold the majority of the knowledge of enset’s cultivation and processing. Using it for industrial production is not out of the question: Dr. Admassu of Addis Ababa University found that enset is an economically viable substitute for barley malt when brewing beer.
If enset becomes a viable cash-crop, it’s critical that some control stays in women’s hands. The team behind Enset is a Good Thing writes that enset’s strength comes from its small-scale production and accessibility: “If scaled up by women and for women, however, with women maintaining ownership, control and appropriate resources to increase production, the future of enset, we suggest, holds a much stronger potential to maintaining and perhaps increasing its current benefits.”