Enhancing enset agriculture with mobile agri-data, knowledge interchange and climate adapted genotypes to support the Enset Center of Excellence

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Department Name: Biodiversity Informatics

Abstract

Ethiopia is an African country ranked 104/119 in the most recent Global Hunger Index, with 28.8% of the population undernourished from 2014-16. The annual costs of malnutrition have been estimated at $4.7 billion, equivalent to 16.5% of Ethiopia's economy, with significant long-term socio-economic consequences. Whilst Ethiopia has historically been the world's largest recipient of targeted food aid, little food-insecurity has been reported for the southern Ethiopian highlands even during the devastating famines of the 1980s.

Agriculture in Southern Ethiopian highlands is dominated by enset, the regional starch staple. which possesses unique attributes that enhance the food security of the communities that grow it. However due to isolated and remote nature of the region, and the perception that enset is 'poor persons food' research on enset has historically been neglected in favour of cereals. Enset is an unusual crop/plant, closely related to banana - the world's most important fruit. However enset differs in that the mature plant does not produce edible fruit (as these are filled with numerous large and hard seeds). Instead the plant is grown for 3-12 years, before the petioles, pseudostem and corm are harvested and collectively processed into starchy food products. Enset serves as a staple food for about 20% of the Ethiopian population, over 20 million people, mainly in the south and south-west of the country. Under appropriate conditions it is estimated that 60 mature plants can provide enough food for a family of five to six people.

Our network of UK and Ethiopian Universities and agricultural organisations have been studying the genetic diversity and distribution of enset in Ethiopia. Our aim has been to identify and characterise enset varieties with useful traits, such as enhanced pest or drought tolerance, as well as better understanding its environmental requirements and reproductive biology.

Here, we propose a series of impact development activies - together with our Ethiopian partners - to help translate and embed our research findings into practical outcomes and applications for rural farmers. We have three main themes:

1. To support progression of the Enset Center of Excellence, a regional enset research initiative. We will do this primarily through interchange of project staff, encouraging the development of new skills, new perspectives, and fostering new collaborations. Our key goal is to encourage traditionally distinct and relatively isolated partner organisations to work more closely together for the benefit of Ethiopia.

2. Developmen of a basic mobile app to advise farmers on optimum local genotypes, disease identification and best agronomic practice. From our experience, this is the best way of rapidly delivering location specific, accurate and practical advice directly to farmers. We will use smart phone location capabilities to consult a pre-loaded mode of enset performance to recommend optimum landraces to farmers. We will also translate the disease diagnostic ID sheets we have developed to be mobile friendly, and available in the five most spoken languages, to help farmers identify enset pests and pathogens.

3. To install and develop three local enset nurseries, to grow and distribute selected enset landraces. Based on the findings of our existing research, we will select 10 genotypes that perform well (high yield, disease tolerant) across a range of agroecological conditions. Rapid clonal propagation of these genotypes using local ethnobotanic knowledge, will enable multiplication of plantlets to generate thousands of individuals that can be sold to farmers (for a small standard market price) to support the long-term sustainability of the nursery.

As the second most populous African country, the population of Ethiopia predicted to reach 172 million by 2050. Thus we believe there is an urgent need to develop underutilised crop plants, to rise to this food security challenge.

Planned Impact

Who might benefit from this research?

Ethiopia currently has the second highest population in Africa (>108 million) where agriculture accounts for 80% of exports and 75% of Ethiopians are smallholder farmers. Thus food security is a priority for the Ethiopian government, particularly with the population predicted to reach 172 million by 2050 and increasing agricultural uncertainty due to climate change. Therefore the project outcomes outlined here will be critical to develop strategies to safeguard food and nutrient security, maintain sustainable livelihoods and enable climate-smart adaptation for the agricultural economy with impact specifically targeted to benefit the millions of farmers across the region who depend on the resource provisioning of their indigenous agri-systems.

More broadly, translating the findings of genomic and environmental modelling research into agricultural impact in rural areas are global agricultural challenges faced by researchers around the world. Millions of small holder farmers and the value chains that depend on them stand to benefit from improved approaches to deliver this. As such, our findings are anticipated to have high applicability to other diverse farming systems and orphan crops.

How might they benefit from this research?

Enset provides an important dietary starch source for 20 million people, as well as co-products including fibres, medicines, animal fodder, roofing and packaging. Under appropriate conditions it is estimated that 60 mature plants can provide enough food for a family of five to six people, over the course of a year, with little to no off-farm inputs (i.e. fertilizer, pesticides). Enset is also the most used crop for 'wages in kind' and a key crop for livestock fodder in the dry season. It's unique combination of characteristics gives enset an important role during times of famine in the areas in which it is traditionally cultivated. Enset's resilience and versatility has earned the name 'the tree against hunger'.

Our proposal seeks to enhance enset performance, by using data from the largest environmental, genomic and ethnobotanic survey of enset diversity to date. We will condense this research into clear advice and recommendations, delivered through a simple mobile-app. We anticipate several benefits, including: Improvements in yield due to growth of climate-optimisd genotypes; reduced time from planting to maturity; easier detection of pest and pathogens (using ID keys) and enhanced resilience (by selecting appropriate landraces); agricultural management advice including information on planting density, fertilisation, seasonal activity and intercropping arising from research elsewhere in the network. We also note that we will be able to deliver advice, based on the latest research findings, much more rapidly than traditional methods. Finally, to embed these benefits and make them accessible to all, we will supply selected enset landraces at a nominal cost.

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