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Teff - Ethiopia’s tiny secret going global

Ethiopia’s indigenous grain teff is garnering global interest as a new super food, while Ethiopia’s government tries to ensure local prices don’t rocket for Ethiopians.

Every six days a week an Ethiopian Airlines flight departs Addis Ababa for Washington in the US with a fresh batch of 3,000 injera on board. This pancake-shaped grey spongy bread is a centuries-old Ethiopian staple made from teff, a tiny grain now making a health food name for itself globally. "For the future this company is planning to distribute Ethiopian traditional food all over the world," said Hailu Tessema, founder of Mama Fresh, Ethiopia's first large-scale factory producing teff-based products.

Inside the factory there are several tall blue barrels full of teff flour mixed with water. The mixture is left there for four days to ferment. Afterwards the fermented mixture is moved next door where women scoop out small jug-sized amounts to pour onto a heated clay surface where it sizzles and turns into a pancake like bread which is called injera.

Calcium, iron, protein, amino acids

Teff's tiny seeds are high in calcium, iron, protein and amino acids and it is also gluten-free. Even before the modern state of Ethiopia existed, Ethiopians have been grinding teff into flour to make injera, remaining unaware of the nutritional gem in their midst. But increasing global demand for healthy food along with Ethiopia's large diaspora in cities like Washington has put teff flour in the spotlight. Teff flour can also be used to make any flour-based food such as bread, pasta, tortillas and cookies.

A woman pouring a fermented mixture of teff flower and water onto a clay-surface stove to make injera

A mixture of teff flour and water is used to make injera

Mama Fresh has also eager customers in Europe. The company flies injera to Sweden three times a week, to Norway twice a week and to Germany three times a month, with demand increasing by about 10 percent every month, Tessema said. "Predominately it's Europeans buying teff bread; those who cannot eat wheat or who are heath conscious," said Sophie Kebede, owner of Tobia Teff, a UK-based business firm specializing in the grain. "When we started in 2007 nobody knew when we said teff whether it was a Christmas pudding or a banana split, but I'm very happy to say we've come a long way from that now," Kebede said. "It's not yet a household name but at least many people know what teff is."

Protecting teff for the masses

Kebede gets her teff from farms located in southern Mediterranean countries. This is due to the Ethiopian Ministry of Trade strategically restricting exports of its increasingly sought-after grain to protect the country's food security.

Teff flour inside Mama Fresh’s flour storage room

Teff flour can also be used to make bread, pasta, tortillas and cookies

Evidence would suggest the government has a right to proceed cautiously, because teff's global debut comes after a super grain quinoa hit a global market, rising consumption in more affluent countries. This made quinoa too costly for some locals in the countries growing it. "The government has to cover the daily consumption of its own people before it exports outside, which I can appreciate," Kebede said. "But at the same time it is much better for us if we can get teff from an Ethiopian farmer, because who is better than an Ethiopian farmer when it comes to teff."

The consensus among those involved in the teff industry appears to be that the ban will eventually be lifted, although when and how the government goes about it will require significant coordination. "Obviously you've got the risk of driving up domestic prices of teff, and nobody wants that at all", said an American Matthew Davis, a partner at Renew Strategies, an early stage venture capital company based in Addis Ababa investing in Mama Fresh's plans. "So I think the government is going to be very cautious about that, and the way they're going to control that is by giving licenses to a select, controlled number of companies or exporters."

Davis notes that already much teff is leaving the country illegally across borders to Djibouti, Somalia and beyond to the West. "If it's going to happen, you might as well control it and get some tax revenue from it, and everybody's happy."

Wrestling with demand

Despite all the praise for teff's amazing nutritional properties it does have an Achilles heel. Due to teff previously being limited to growing in Ethiopia, it hasn't benefited from international agricultural research. Consequently, Ethiopian farmers haven't had access to modern farming methods or techniques available to other crops.

Hailu Tessema (right), founder of Mama Fresh; his wife, Konjit Zewdie and their son Mirafesilassie

Hailu Tessema (right), founder of Mama Fresh, Ethiopia's first large-scale factory producing teff-based products

Such constraints have kept the crop's yields low and unable to keep pace with Ethiopia's increasing population, thereby driving the price of the grain beyond many Ethiopian families. The Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency is focused on increasing teff production to at least match domestic demand, after which exporting it should be more palatable. "The opportunity this presents to the country is significant and the benefit over the long term will far outweigh the risks", Davis said, while noting the industry would have to commercialize and professionalize to export effectively, and take measures not to undermine the local market.

During the teff harvest, oxen are still used to stamp teff seeds out of the grass, followed by pitch forks to winnow. That hipsters in New York and Amsterdam are suddenly after a teff fix, might well perplex some of those 6.3 million Ethiopian farmers producing it.

Those at the forefront of teff's global march, such as Hailu Tessema at Mama Fresh, appear content with the current trajectory. "I'm very happy, Ethiopia is the founder of teff, so like coffee our teff is becoming important all over the world," Tessema said.

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