Residents of SNNPR fear perils of starvation as disease continues to kill their enset plants

Poor community mobilization makes it hard to control enset disease and maintain production


Enset plant (Ensete ventricosum) is the most important root crop in Ethiopia and a traditional staple food source in the densely populated south and southwestern parts of Ethiopia. “Our ancestors long ago remained abreast of enset diseases by using their traditional and indigenous knowledge” said Eyasu Tilahun, a lecturer and the Director of the Indigenous Knowledge Studies program at Wachemo University (WU) in the SNNPR region of Ethiopia. Presently enset plant (Ensete ventricosum) crop is being wiped out due to the epidemic of bacterial wilt disease of enset and the general lack of conservation and protection efforts. Mr. Tilahun, has been advocating for the mobilization of researchers, government agencies, and international development organizations to solve the problem. According to him retraining farmers in their own heritage indigenous remedial practices such as applying ash and/or human/animal urine around the stem base of enset plant, intercropping locally abundant bobanka/tontona plant, and agricultural rotation, as well as other practices will go a distance in fighting the bacteria.

Slide the median to the right to see the leaf stem of the healthy enset and to the right to see the infected. Infected enset leaf release yellowish oozes in an opened leaf sheath.

Farmer Ayele Anbiko, a father farmer of 12, lives in the Hadiya Zone, Lemo Woreda, Kalisha Kebelle. He told HMN that his ability to support his family depends on Enset harvest for food as well as to earn money by selling enset products. After the disease struck his enset farm, his ability to harvest enough food for the family and afford his family’s other financial needs such as medical and educational expenses has been severely constrained.

Farmer Ayele Anbiko poses for picture next to the bacterial wilting infected enset plants in his farm

The sadness on Ayele Anbiko’s face was evident when he remarked that his mature enset plants, those in the most productive and harvest-able stage of enset life and on which he invested years of his time and energy were infected and can’t be harvested and have to be discarded making it difficult to survive as a subsistence farmer. The issue goes beyond what can be seen. He had to removed the diseased plants from his farm and dump them in the wild far from the farm, he noted.

Rawuda Shukure is Ayele’s neighbor. She is a mother of six and her husband died recently, making her as her family’s sole provider. She has three boys and three girls. Their existence is dependent on enset production and cultivation. Before the bacterial wilt disease infected enset, Rawuda told the Hadiya Media Network-HMN, “Previously we didn’t have to worry about hunger as we never had to worry about the bacterial wilting. We kept planting enset in uninfected soil. Recently we discovered that the plants were infected after spending a lot of money and time planting and caring for them. We won’t have to worry about famine again if the enset’s health is restored” she said.

“Prior to the invasion of infection, the enset plant was heavily populated on my farm; however, this is no longer the case. We stopped producing enset approximately three or four years ago and started growing alternate crops like maize and potatoes. These crops, however, do not meet our needs for food and revenue the way the enset crop did.”

She said situations forced her to purchase enset product from market now because the remaining enset were also discovered to be contaminated after removing over 50 infected enset from her farm. Therefore, deciding whether to continue or stop enset cultivation is difficult and confusing for here. She sees no point in planting enset on an infected land and the land needs to be treated for any chance of success.

The son of Rawuda and a college student named Wabela Desta said that Enset was the main source of support for farmer families like theirs. “We use Enet as a food source, to build houses, to make foam/jeba locally, for medical needs, fiber and to generate income, but the bacterial wilt disease has made all of these things impossible. We grew up eating foods like kocho, hamicho, and bula, but we are missing those today.”

Enset Behind Wabela with yellow leaf found infected

Almaze Desta, a Hadiya Zone resident who is a farmer mother from Misha Woreda Morsito Kebele told HMN “Enest is our food and economic source, but bacterial wilt disease has been killing it. Because bacterial wilt disease is killing Enset, starvation is at our doorstep. We are facing hanger. I am waiting for God’s mercy as a mother to feed my family,” she stated.

Turunesh Kifele is also a mother farmer in in Hadiya Zone Misha Woreda Morsito Kebele said “we are seeking for substitute crops that will feed us like enset, but it is difficult to find a substitute supply because enset growing doesn’t require large farm land and agricultural inputs like fertilizer. Since we have a limited amount of farmland, it is therefore unaffordable to replace enset cultivation with other crops like maize, wheat, and barley.”

In Ethiopia’s regional structure, Enset serves four regions as a staple food source. In the south, where farmers have limited farmland, Enset is the major source of food. “It is important that the government and other concerned citizens help manage and kill this disease”, said Enset Breeder and National Enset research program coordinator Henok Fiker at SNNPR Agriculture Bureau and Arka Enset Research Center.

A baseline survey of 820 smallholder farmers in 16 zones of SNNPR and the Oromia region found that only 35 percent of the farmers knew how to deal with this disease.  For the last 10 years, Arka Enset Research Center has been collecting and distributing information as well as working with agricultural sectors to promote findings and solutions to the farmers. But he pointed out that there have been problems along the way, including poor community mobilization in the implementation process.

The Areka Research Center and Wachamo University have begun breeding modified Enset corm that may be disease-resistant while awareness-raising efforts across the SNNPR’s 10 Zones and Woredas have continued.

As to him, if communities were properly mobilized for prevention, the disease could easily be controlled and managed. For instance, at Areka Research Center around 700 enset species have been collected and the research center has been conducting research on enset disease to discover solutions for the disease impacts.  This disease could be prevented only by adhering to proven sanitary approach. 

Henok added that the purpose of our effort is to build the groundwork for future research endeavors. So far six enset species that produce more effectively and two enset corm that are resistant to the effects of the disease have been found.

After the baseline survey, the Arka Research Center created participatory plans or gave farmers, the Hadiya Zone Agriculture Office, and media personalities training and seminars to address the effects of the disease and prevent its spread to healthy Enset.

Wachemo University has collected over 350 Enset corm and is still looking into the sources of the bacterial wilt. There are no easy solutions, but there are measures farmers can take to help slow down and fight this disease. During workshops and training sessions provided by Wachemo University, they are being taught sanitary practices, such as using clean farm tools, cutting and burying infected plants, and watching out for infected plants that can lead to cross contamination of whole fields.  The tradition of sharing planting materials in the enset farming communities can contribute to the spread of the disease according to Wachemo University researcher and assistant professor Daniel Manore.

Since there aren’t any chemicals or other control methods that farmers may use, implementing these hygienic practices and altering traditions that could help propagate the ideas are very crucial. He emphasized that farmers’ efforts will make a difference.

Millions of Ethiopians depend on enset as a main food source and their livelihood. According to Wachemo University researcher and assistant professor Manore, it is crucial to control this disease to be able to feed the ever increasing population. Otherwise millions of Ethiopians may soon face starvation. Chemicals or genetically based bacterial wilt management methods are not yet available for enset farmers. He added that the illness could result in severe infections and the loss of entire fields.

Researchers and farming experts mentioned in this story are recommending sanitary approach as the only way for now to manage the disease and maintain a better enset harvesting and prevent starvation that could occur due to the disease’s impact on enset. More mobilization is needed, but the current level of fight against bacterial wilt disease through enset protection, conservation, and awareness raising to the farmers to adhere to all sanitary approaches is making some progress, HMN has learned from Professor Manore.

He said that since 2011 attempts have been made to manage and remove enset plants infected by the bacterial wilt disease from farms after participatory awareness-raising workshops and training, but farmers’ commitment has been unsatisfactory.

Professor Manore discussed what it means to lose Enset as a staple food crop for farmers and the economy of some regions and the country as a whole. For example, it would mean widespread starvation in SNNPR region (Hadiya, Kambata, Selitie, Sidama, Gurage, and Gedio.)

He recommends that in order to reduce the harm, disease-resistant enset species should be propagated and provided to the farmer. According to him, the situation is serious for the local farmers because their livelihood depends on enset production if it is not resolved in the next five years or after a few years.

He also noted that the threat to enset’s survival has increased and farmers are already food-insecure because of the plant epidemic. Enset is regarded as a cash crop, but because its natural gene is in danger, it needs to be protected. For him, there is a lot of talk about enset but no actual action from citizens or politicians. Now is the time to work hard on the mission to save Enset.

The disease has the ability to harm enset plants, according to Yohanes Horamo (PhD), Director of Research Centers at Wachemo University (AU) and Coordinator of Researchers. WU has setup enset researching farms in an effort to aid farmers and preserve enset plants. The institution has been engaged in efforts to gather and preserve selected Enset crops. On 3 hectares of land, it is currently farming and preserving the best crops. He addressed the current concerns about enset disappearing as a result of the disease. He thinks the university can help multiply and distribute proven breeds to farmers.

According to Dr. Horamo, WU commenced its research on enset with two goals: to discover and conserve enset crops that are resistant to disease on an uncontaminated tracts of land, and to multiply and disseminate the resulting suckers (root sprouts) of these enset breeds to farmers. Currently it is conserving and multiplying enset crops on three hectares of land with the intention of later distributing them to farmers. It is expected that that all enset breeds grown at WU will be immune to infection. But the scale with which WU can distribute its breeds may not be sufficient to remedy the magnitude of this widespread problem.

According to Dr. Tsedeke Lambore, vice president for research and community service at Wachamo University, the value of the enset crop goes beyond its use as food.

The university has planned to leverage farmers’ indigenous knowledge of battling the disease in current research processes in addition its enset conservation program. The university has confirmed that certain traditional methods of treating the infection including the usage by farmers of ash, livestock and human urine, and co-planting of the local bobanka plant. He added that he has an ongoing research examining other traditional treatments for their effectiveness.

Wachemo University (main campus) enset conservation and protection farm

WU’s work on enset plant and other agricultural developments goes back to year 2012. It has been working with the Hadiya Zone Agriculture Office and Areka Research Centers to train farmers on how to adhere to anti-cross contamination enset sanitary practices. WU does not limit its training program to enset farming. It’s farmers-focused extension programs integrate other best practices in farming such as how to build a better poultry business. It collaborates with the Hadiya Zone Agriculture Office, the Farm and Natural Resource Conservation Office, and mass media on awareness-raising initiatives.

There is another equally important challenge to enset and other farming in Hadiya Zone: the lack of generational continuity in farming according to Dr. Lamore. The youth of the Haidya people are no longer choosing to be farmers and instead to migrate to urban centers or foreign lands. This phenomenon has complex and multi-faceted root causes. One of the most important factor is the lack of sufficient land to sustain the next generation. The zone is one of the most densily populated regions in the country. Among others, the other important factor for the youth’s abandonment of farming is their desire to live a better and modern life elsewhere. The point however is that this dynamic of migration from rural areas is already having an impact on farming in the region. The vigorous protection of enset from devastation from bacterial wilting is possible only with young farmers investing their energy as their parents become older and are no longer able to do so.

HMN’s core observation is that while there are laudable institutional and governmental efforts to fight enset’s bacterial wilting, these may not be sufficient to stop the devastation. The application of indigenous knowledge to address the risk posed to enset plant and its production is one of the ways in which to fight the infection and it is a good start, but HMN has not seen the widespread implementation of these methods on the ground.

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