With nearly 90% of its population living in rural areas, Ethiopia is a largely agrarian country. Agriculture accounts for 41% of Ethiopia’s GDP and 80% of its total exports. Green (unroasted, raw) coffee is the most important export item, accounting for 28% of the country’s total exports. But coffee doesn’t do it alone. There are unsung heroes of the plant kingdom that allow coffee, and the people who produce it, to thrive in Ethiopia.
While I was visiting Ethiopia this past February, Heleanna Georgalis, of Moplaco Trading Company, shared with me what she believes to be the four most important plants in Ethiopia:
The False Banana is a species of flowering plant in the banana family, Musaceae. Though this gigantic evergreen herb, which can grow up to 20 feet in height, bears no fruit (hence False Banana) it is a traditional food staple in southern and southwest Ethiopia.
Once mature (a process that takes 4-5 years) the leaves are cut from the plant and a serrated tool is used to separate tender tissues from the fibrous material at the heart of the plant. The bulbous root is then shaved and mixed with the tissue separated from the heart. This mixture is then kneaded together (as seen in the photograph at the top of this blog post). After kneading, the combined pulp is buried underground where it is allowed to ferment for many weeks.
The liquid that drains off while the pulp is being kneaded is allowed to evaporate in one of the plant’s large leaves. The resulting powder is used as a sort of adaptogen. This is not the plant’s only medical purpose, however, as I was also told that laboring women will tie their hands around the tree during childbirth.
Once the fermented pulp has been exhumed, it is sifted and further kneaded, after which it is mixed with salt and cooked as a flat bread. The tangy bread is an essential source of calories and nutrition for coffee farmers.
The plant is used in its entirety. All parts are fed to livestock. Even the fibrous material at the heart, which the tissue was removed from for fermentation, is used to make jute for bags and ropes.
Also known as African Soapberry, Endod is a plant with antiseptic properties. Until recently, Endod was used in place of soap to wash and whiten clothes, as well as bathe with. It can even be sprayed on coffee shrubs and used to fight CBD (coffee berry disease), a fungus which was first identified in Kenya, but is now found throughout East Africa.
Kosso is the name of a medicine obtained from the African Redwood tree. Ethiopians consume a lot of raw meat, which often causes tapeworms. The dried seeds of the African Redwood are ground and mixed with water to create the extremely bitter concoction, Kosso. According to the medical community, the efficacy of Kosso is dubious. But, every Ethiopian I spoke with about the plant swore by its effectiveness.
And of course coffee, the primary source of income for a staggering percentage of the Ethiopian population.