Modelling and genomics resources to enhance exploitation of the sustainable and diverse Ethiopian starch crop Enset and support livelihoods

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Department Name: Natural Capital and Plant Health


Enset is a large perennial herbaceous plant similar in form to the related banana. It is distributed across central, eastern and southern Africa, a crop in the banana (Musaceae) family, and currently provides a food source for ~20 million people in Ethiopia alone via its corm and stem base supplying dietary starch. It also supplies fibres, medicines, animal fodder, a key food source for bees, is culturally significant and stabilises soils.

Enset is potentially very important as a climate-smart crop for the future because of its apparent ability to withstand long periods (>5 years) of drought. However, little is currently known about its biology, including the genetic variation of both wild and cultivated forms, its fruiting biology, soil fungal associations or ability to withstand pests and diseases. We seek to promote enset as a source of dietary starch build collaborative UK/African research strengths in four principal ways:

1) Gathering a range of data from across its distribution in Ethiopia including the physical traits of enset alongside information about the local climate and soil in each area sampled and data from farmer interviews. This will then be used to create a data resource via computer models that will generate the understanding to underpin breeding, food security and supply of products and enhanced government policy in this crop.

2) Studying enset in the field so that its flowering, fruiting and seed production is fully understood to assist in developing a breeding programme.

3) Unravelling the genome of the banana family, and especially enset, to understand overall diversity patterns and discovering the genes associated desirable characteristics such as control of flowering, disease resistance and root and corm development.

4) Surveying the occurrence of disease-causing organisms in the field to discover non-susceptible populations and varieties for genetic study and conservation at in-country seed banks and living plant collections with those displaying other useful traits.

These research activities will help improve security of food supply and help to plan for and breed varieties that can withstand climate change and disease. They will prevent enset being supplanted by a global crop such as maize, reducing the diversity of both agriculture and diets. It will be protected as a source of pharmaceutical products and potentially could be more widely grown in Africa as a source of starch for food, biofuel or industry. It is already a low input crop in terms of fertilisers and pesticides and research can make it lower still. We also plan to unlock the value of wild forms as sources of key traits and the genes that underpin them for breeding into cultivated plants such as drought resistance or formation of suckers so plants can be divided vegetatively. The research we plan to undertake helps the UK and the global community to meet its obligations under the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Most importantly, the project will support improvement of people's standards of living within five years by providing disease free planting material through tissue culture methods and methods to identify (and therefore help treat) diseases or remove diseased plants.

Technical Summary

Enset is a large perennial herbaceous plant similar to the related banana distributed across central, eastern and southern Africa. Despite its widespread distribution in Africa it has only been domesticated in Ethiopia with hundreds of landraces of varieties found in diverse climatic and agroecological systems providing multiple ecosystem services. Despite the current and potential importance of enset, relatively little is known about its biology. We aim to develop the resources needed to provide the biodiversity science and fill critical knowledge gaps to enable the exploitation of enset diversity as a resilient climate-smart crop of the future.

In order to do so we will undertake reseach in four areas. 1) Developing a multi-dimensional, multifunctional, baseline resource for enset cultivation. This will combine morphological trait, genetic diversity and pest and pathogen occurrence data with farmer interview and soil and climate data using proven, state-of-the-art species distribution model (SDM) methodologies into an electronic resource. 2) Investigating flowering phenology and development, morphology, pollination mechanisms and seed germination biology to enable conservation and breeding 3) Realising the potential of the genetic diversity of cultivated and wild enset using genetic markers and genotyping by sequencing approaches using comparative analysis with banana, identifying genes associated with developmental processes of flowering, starch storage, and disease resistance 4) Determining the resilience of enset to pests and pathogens via field surveys supported by lab-based and molecular diagnostics.

The project will answer fundamental questions about the diversity and biology of enset in order to address some of the major challenges facing the crop in near and longer term in biological, societal and policy terms, while achieving international-quality research excellence alongside training, partnership and capacity building and knowledge transfer.

Planned Impact

Impact in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is an African LDC ranked at 185/194 on GDP per capita by the United Nations, with over 30% of the population earning less than $1.25 per day. Our research will improve its food security and nutrition, and secure availability of enset for the future, directly benefitting ~20M people in Ethiopia for whom enset is currently a staple starch source and provider of multiple ecosystem services. Enset has the potential to help many other LDCs/LMICs in Africa. The project seeks to progress UN SDG2 (End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture) and SDG15 (use terrestrial ecosystems sustainably/halt biodiversity loss) and to contribute to SDG1 (End poverty), SDG3 (Ensure healthy lives) and SDG13 (Combat climate change).

Development will be made via tissue culture of disease-free, resilient varieties. Their provision to farmers in Ethiopia will make a measurable difference to livelihood indicators within five years. Protocols for propagation by local cooperatives will underpin a rural industry. Disease diagnostic tools developed and delivered to key actors via the project website and/or a smartphone app during the project will positively impact livelihoods by allowing evidence-based removal or crop protection. Conservation collections will protect and promote planting of optimal regional and locally appropriate varieties. We will make enhanced agrobiodiversity information on enset available to Ethiopian farmers, NGOs and the Ethiopian Government, enabling dissemination of best practice and more effective decision making through a cross-ministry national strategy for enset in Ethiopia

UK Impact
A novel research partnership between UK and Ethiopian institutes will be developed, mutually enhancing capacity and capability. It will enable all parties to develop their ability to deliver significant research outcomes - and expand their research portfolios - by facilitating access to the genetic diversity involved and developing a consortium that is enabled to undertake a future comprehensive research programme on enset with a view to expansion of its cultivation to other regional Low and/or Middle Income Countries (LMICs) and thus helping tackle the sustainable development goals (SDGs) described above. Kew has a strong track record in working in biodiverse LMIC countries, with seven projects under way with Darwin Initiative funding. A CoI (Leicester) is part of the project with professional expertise in delivering of practical development impact in projects with LMICs. This will model a general approach to the development of a collaborative research effort that can provide an agile response to future threats to global food security and sustainable development.

The project will yield seven high impact, open access publications ranging from bioclimatic modelling, inflorescence development and pollination to gene function of flower, fruit and starch storage development and in stress response. Popular science articles, blogs and external media products on the project will be developed in partnership with the respective press and impact teams. Team members will present the project including via interactive activities at science festivals across the UK. They will include the Kew Science festival. RBG, Kew will play a particular role in engagement with the UK public via its 1.8M visitors per year, tropical greenhouses and learning environment based around tropical plant biology and its role in tackling global challenges.


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