An Agronomist Explains her Research in South Ethiopia and Tells us About Enset, the False Banana Plant

I recently met Camille Hoornaert a French Agronomist who studied the Ethiopian Agrarian system in Kambaata, in the south region of Ethiopia. (Development Perspectives for an Ethiopian Agrarian System Sinking into Crisis. Kambatta Agrarian Diagnosis 2011) I sat with her and asked about the state of agriculture in Kambaata and her Ethiopian food memories.

How did you become an agronomist?

My grandparents were farmers in the middle of the French countryside.  I have these agricultural roots and I liked biology in high school, more than any other science. So I started studying it in preparatory classes. I wanted to understand how everything works. I think I wanted to head the world. I could not really say precisely what it was I wanted to do or understand it, but I was aware, I had this picture in my mind that there is a lot of hunger and problems around food and it’s not fair, so I wanted to help and learn about biological (organic) agriculture.

At Agroparistech in Paris I chose to study agricultural development. The professors were using special methods that rely on the knowledge of the farmers, trying to understand the whole agricultural system, not just the cropping or seeding system within the region and country. They go to countries and regions (in Europe as well) and around the world; they ask farmers what do you do? And why? What did you do in the past? What’s changed? What are your difficulties? What are the limiting factors? And what are the social relationships between you and the market? Many agronomists pretend to know it better (than farmers). But the farmers are the ones who know it best and know their own farms. They know what works in the field and what is good for them. Because of its complexity, I found it really interesting and meaningful.

How did you end up in Ethiopia?

I found a French NGO called Interaide, with projects in Ethiopia. They needed an agrarian study in order to help them design and implement their development projects in Kambaata, a region of Ethiopia south of Addis Ababa. I wanted to study the manual agriculture system with animals and manual tools and no machines, where people have small pieces of land and try to develop intensive systems that allow them to grow a lot of food in a small area. I wanted to do it with someone else because you had to stay in the countryside for six months and there would be someone to talk with, so I went with a friend of mine from school.

What do they grow in Kambaata?

We arrived there in 2011 and stayed six months for two cropping seasons. Kambaata is a mountainous region about 2500 m high and rainy. It’s a very very green area. It’s not the picture I had of Ethiopia. You could not see a piece of land that was not cultivated. We arrived in the beginning of March and people were waiting for the first rains, which came late that year. The temperatures in Kambaata average 20 degrees Celsius; it’s quite temperate year round. There are two raining seasons. The shorter one is from March to June and used for crops like potatoes, barley and beans. The big rainy season from July to September is used to plant beans and wheat. The harvest generally happens at the end of December. Ethiopia is not a very big wheat producing country, but in Kambaata they grow wheat because the climate is good for it.

Families grow most vegetables in small gardens behind their houses, they eat some and sell some. Most of the families use the first rainy season to grow and store potatoes and barley for their own sustenance. The second cropping season is for cash crops. Farmers do most of their business with the government and sell most of what they grow.

You can find out more information about the history and specifics of the regional agriculture in the study at

Tell me about the enset plant otherwise known as false banana.

Because of the climate in Kambaata, this region is famous for enset, a plant that resembles a banana tree. During the agricultural reform, enset was not counted as an agricultural plant and (the land it was growing on) was not included in the agrarian reform. Therefore landlord farmers were able to retain land with big plots of enset. You can still see (these plots) today. Enset is all carbohydrates and no protein. Vitamins, I don’t know. The advantage of enset is that you can keep it in the soil for a long time. It’s a food-asset.

Explain what a food asset is?

The plant can stay in the ground until it is ready to harvest and ferment. This allows people to process it on their own time.  It’s a lot of work to make the harvest and fermentation process. And you need to organize the other women in the community. It takes one day or two days. First the trunks are raked and then they make a hole in the soil and put the grated enset in the soil to ferment. From there, you can eat it year round. People exchange work a lot in the community. Enset is a woman’s job the men take care of the crops. Women also usually make the butter and milk the cows.

There are three kinds of products from enset. From the stem, the biggest part of the tree they make kotcho, the fermented pancake. It’s not the best quality because it has a lot of fibers and acid and the taste depends on the age of the tree. But you get a big quantity. Then you have bula, which is made from the inside part of the tree. There is no fiber. The texture is smooth and really different. They eat in small pieces kind of like couscous mixed with peppers, onions, herbs and butter. It’s a very expensive dish, so it’s served on special occasions. Enset is also produced as bread, which is not as acidic as kotcho. The roots are also eaten, but they don’t have much flavor.

What do people eat in Kambaata?

The daily diet is kotcho and Ethiopian cabbage, which is like green kale. Not so many vegetables because they often sell them. Sometimes they have eggs but they have to have chickens and they have to feed them. Or they eat roasted grain (barley, wheat and beans). They drink coffee with butter and salt. I love coffee, but this was quite different for me. People said you have to try it, it’s like soup. The first time I tried it, it was really awful because the butter was quite old and it was really salty. But when the butter is not so fermented and there is not too much salt. It’s very different but the aromas are interesting. People have to have enough money to buy the coffee regularly, and coffee is expensive. It is not grown in that region. So they buy coffee as they need it. But most people have it as part of their daily expenses. The poorest people can’t afford coffee. As a substitute they made another kind of drink with onion leaves, spices and salt.

Do you have any special Ethiopian food memories?

The best experience was with the farmers, because we had very nice moments with them and we had a translator. He was very good and allowed us to talk with them. They people trusted him and trusted us and we were always welcome. We ate a lot as well. This was a privilege, to eat the best food. Sometimes we were ashamed because we were not hungry and we still had to eat bula.

The first meal I had in Ethiopia, was in Addis Ababa. It was beyenet, an injera platter with wots, lentils, vegetables and cheese. It was a fasting day so it was all vegetarian. There were three of us and it was the first time that we ate with our fingers. We didn’t know if we needed to wash our hands before or after. Then we drank coffee and it was so strong. And it tasted good. And after that I was drinking coffee every day.

When people ask me about what was special about the food. I speak about coffee because I drank lots of it in very different ways. Of course in the city I was drinking it black without anything or sometimes with sugar or a macchiato. In the countryside I was drinking it with salt and butter. And that was totally new for me. In the region where I was living, it was really amazing, it was still the countryside and only farmers were at the market. It was not such a contrast between countryside and city, but you could not find any coffee with salt in this town. It was really in the house with the farmers were you would drink the coffee with salt. But in the rich families it was mostly with sugar. The families who could afford sugar were really the richest ones. They would ask me all the time; do you prefer sugar or salt?

And, well, the big discovery for me was also sharing food and eating with your hands. It’s not like in France where everyone has his plate and you get what you order and eat it alone. It’s really like, what should we take from the plate?

photos by Camille Hoornaert

Interview with Roba Bulga Jilo about Slow Food Ethiopia

March 2013

Describe Slow Food Ethiopia
Slow Food activities and projects in Ethiopia  works directly with small producers and food communities in different part of the country. Some of the places where Slow Food has activities are really remote while others are relatively close to the capital; Addis Ababa. SF  Ethiopia works silently because it is not an NGO like other organization which has very complicate structures. Although we are working beyond any organization Ethiopian people know SF hardly. SF has projects in three regions; Oromia, Tigray and Southern Nations and Nationalities. All this was possible because we have strong collaboration with local district officials’ support and some great partners which let us to reach such great producers of honey, coffee and other food communities.

How did it start and where is it going?
It was started almost seven years back. This was after the first Terra Madre was held in the history of Slow Food, 2004. It was through Terra Madre network Ethiopia was introduced to Slow Food and Carlin Peterini the founder of Slow Food international was invited to Ethiopia in 2007. This was the very confirmation where the country has embraced the notion by some supporters and projects commenced to be designed; at the  grass root activities started. So far Slow Food has got five food communities and four presidia:  Harenna wild Forest coffee, Karrayyu herders Camel Milk, Wonchi and Wukuro honey. The other projects is the Thousand Garden project which exist in 25 African countries and was launched in 2010 during Terra Madre.  Ethiopia has 35 gardens where as most those gardens are concentrated in the south. As the country has its own challenge it was not easy for SF to find a way/room to work and promote its activities publicaly as it should be. Thanks to our  local partners; NGOs, Italian Embassy and Italian cultural center which is  always on or side to in providing place for little exhibitions/trainings for the producers.

What is your role in Slow Food Ethiopia? How did you get involved?
There are four presidia and other  food communities. In  a way I am responsible for all activities of Slow Food in Ethiopia.  I have got involved as volunteer almost from 2008. I have been closely volenteering as translator, assisting at the events of exhibition and workshops/training for producers. This was starting points that gave me the chance to know much about Slow Food notion then I was hired in July 2009 for short time. After a year and half I was invited to join the University. I am just back to Ethiopia from Italy. I obtained master degree at the University of Gastronomic Science. This University has direct link with the work of Slow Food. It is the direct way the philosophy of Slow Food spread all over the world. I lived in Italy for two year and three months, then back home to work for Slow Food. In deed all the projects are supported by Slow Food.

What projects are you really excited about?
Among the projects the camel milk and honey project is really interesting projects. There are a lot to be learnt  from beekeepers. Beekeeping in Ethiopia not only the tradition, it deep rooted culture which  come across from generation to generation. Much of the know how is more indigenous knowledge which is full complex a very nice ways. From the region to region the bio-culture in the country  is quite rich and more territorial. Territory  is very important for the origin of any product with out denying the value. Bees are very interesting insect that makes honey which golden sugar. In some part of Ethiopia honey considered as holy food which has real medicinal value.