Ethiopia enjoys a great diversity of topography, land forms, soils, and climate resulting in a wide range of vegetation types, and although a large part of the country has been converted to crop land it still possesses one of the richest floras in Africa. Agriculture, where small farmers predominate, accounts for 50 per cent of GDP, 88 per cent of export value, and is a source of employment for more than 85 per cent of the country’s 70 million people. Yet despite this, non-intensively farmed plants including those collected from the wild and grown at small scales by households also contribute to livelihoods in this northeast African country.

Recently, due in part to food scarcity and rising prices, local communities have begun recognizing the value of certain wild plants that have been traditionally used and contributed to the livelihoods of the poor. This development goes against common consumption patterns: Ethiopians are largely reliant on intensively cultivated crops and neglect wild plants, although many species have clearly demonstrated their capacity for production. Moreover wild foods are generally considered to be low-status food items and their consumption has been regarded as a source of shame. Often only children, the very old, and the poor collect and consume wild plants.

Food insecurity in the eastern Horn of Africa is expected to worsen over time as a result of less rain, driven by global climate change: The USAID-funded Famine and Early Warning Systems Network has warned that future Belg rains are expected to be only 60 to 85 per cent of the long-term average. In this situation dependence on conventional farming as the only source of food becomes more risky. Indeed, in 2011, international food prices spiked for the second time in three years, harming food security especially among households dependent upon subsistence agriculture and natural resource use for their livelihoods. To mitigate against this risk it is essential that people should not continue to neglect wild plants as a food source.

For many African societies, the practice of consuming wild indigenous plants (and the state of corresponding local knowledge) has rapidly been abandoned and forgotten in the face of commercial food production. Yet a 2000 survey  circulated through UNDP’s Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia revealed that some wild plants used locally for consumption in times of food shortage have the potential to become valuable staple foods and important alternatives to conventional food crops. As environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change accelerate, non-intensively farmed plants and those collected from the wild will become more and more important in countries like Ethiopia as they have the potential to fill a variety of food gaps. Yet to aid continued and sufficient supply efforts to document such plants should be initiated. Sustainable management and germplasm collections should also be started before these potentially valuable resources are lost forever.

In 2012 an Ambo University-funded project for mapping indigenous and largely non-cultivated plant products in a local market and different villages showed that items such as locally grown green spices, garden-grown coffee, and fruits are regularly purchased and consumed and that they are mostly sold by women. The study also revealed that many locally produced species are sold regularly and used to produce the traditional spice mixes: Berbere and Mitmita - key ingredients in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. Many herbs and spices are less well known internationally. The survey indicated that about 40 individuals, mostly women of various ages, bring varying amounts of locally-produced species of herbs such Gesho, Basobila, Kosorat (Lippia adoensis), Gesamat, Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), Enadda, Tosegn (Thymus schinipesis), Altufa, and Tenadam (local manes) to the thrice weekly Ambo market in West Shoa.

Many of these food items are still to be taxonomically identified and documented yet they comprise an important sub-sector that contributes to womens’ livelihoods and alleviates poverty and food insecurity. In sub-Saharan Africa, women account for up to 80 per cent of the food produced, processed, stored, and sold, but women and children suffer more from malnutrition and hunger. Despite the fact that mostly rural women are heavily involved in such activities, in reality they lack independent access to production resources. In addition, there is no planned conservation and cultivation of most of the species, and the women do not have the support of their family in the various sub-sectors in which they operate. Some of these sub-sectors, such as homestead production, are economically promising as they can contribute to a national demand of food. Homestead production also features a high level of species diversity and has been found to be both an ecologically and socio-economically sustainable activity.
For sustainable use to occur there is a need to first document, describe, and publish such information on the relative contribution of non-intensively farmed plants and those collected from the wild and grown at small scale by households to the economy of households. Details of their availability, conservation need, cultivation, and information about producers is also required.

The aim of the Ambo University project is to document such taxonomic diversity, associated indigenous knowledge and multiple uses, the economic value and intensity of use, rates of decline, income diversification from sales, and ways to ensure participatory conservation of these wild resources. In this vein we are trying to introduce the concept of ‘conserve and use’ as a package where local communities are encouraged to plant, protect, and harvest wild plants, allowing reproduction and population increases of the species. The involvement of communities with a stake in the long-term future of the species and habitats across the region is critical to the success of conservation planning in order to assure the future sustainability of livelihoods, as well as the resources and services provided by functioning ecosystems. We hope that those involved in biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods, poverty reduction, and food security will read the study and approach us with ideas for using the findings.

Dr M.I. Zuberi, Professor of Environmental Science, Ambo University, Ethiopia

Photo: Wild fruits for sale. Credit: M.I. Zuberi.