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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Six days a week, an Ethiopian Airlines flight departs for Washington, D.C., with a fresh batch of 3,000 injera on board. This pancake-shaped pale spongy bread is a centuries-old Ethiopian staple made from teff, an indigenous tiny grain now making a global name for itself as a health food.
Outside Ethiopian diaspora communities — and Ethiopian restaurants — teff remained largely anonymous for decades. But growing appetites for traditional crops and nutritious foods mean customers ranging from families to hipsters in New York and London are now seeking their fix too. The crop is now grown in about 25 U.S. states, but Ethiopians claim you can’t beat teff grown in its homeland for flavor and quality.
Previously heralded so-called superfoods, however, such as Andean quinoa, have illustrated hidden consequences for locals when their indigenous staples find eager customers in more affluent countries. Even before the growth in international demand, poor Ethiopians were struggling to afford increasingly expensive teff.
“A piece of injera used to cost about 50 santeem ($0.02), but now it’s nearly four Ethiopian birr ($0.19),” said Nathaniel, the manager of a hotel in the eastern Ethiopian town of Dire Dawa.It’s estimated that 29 percent of Ethiopia’s population lives on less than $2 a day.
Nathaniel said that the tables on the hotel terrace lacked lunch patrons because people can’t afford to eat out and that many locals, faced with low incomes and high food prices, skip breakfast each day and eat only a midmorning snack followed by an injera-based meal later in the afternoon.
Teff, primarily ground into flour to make injera, is the backbone of Ethiopia’s food. But throughout millennia of farming, most Ethiopians remained unaware of the nutritional gem in their midst.
Though teff is tiny — about 100 grains match a kernel of wheat — it is a nutritional heavyweight. It has a mild, nutty flavor, and it’s high in calcium, iron and protein, with an excellent balance of amino acids. Plus it’s naturally gluten-free. In flour form, it can be used to make foods ranging from bread and pasta to tortillas, piecrusts and cookies, with a far larger potential market than just diaspora Ethiopians needing a taste of home.
"People are dreaming of teff nowadays. After thousands of years, it has become the trendy thing over here," said Sophie Sirak-Kebede, a British-Ethiopian co-owner of London-based Tobia Teff, which sells teff flour, teff bread, breakfast cereals such as teff flakes and teff porridge and, of course, injera.
Foreign interest in teff even resulted in the Ethiopian government’s trying to establish patent rights over teff’s genetic diversity, although that hasn’t prevented teff production from becoming widely achievable outside Ethiopia and beyond the government’s control. This isn’t the first time Ethiopia has lost global rights to a valuable indigenous crop; having given the world coffee, Ethiopia reaped next to nothing from coffee’s becoming the world’s second-most-valuable legal commodity, after oil.
‘People are dreaming of teff nowadays. After thousands of years, it has become the trendy thing over here.’
co-owner, Tobia Teff
As Western consumers jump on the teff bandwagon, the Ethiopian government must handle fulfilling international demand and capitalizing on an increasingly sought-after commodity grown by more than 6 million farmers while ensuring that locals can meet their food needs. It is a complicated balancing act made more difficult by the fact that, despite praise for teff’s nutritional properties, it comes with a drawback.
“Teff is a low-yield crop,” said Zerihun Tadele, an Ethiopian researcher at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the University of Bern, Switzerland. And because of its previously sheltered existence, “very little research and investment has been done on the crop.”
Also, Ethiopian farmers haven’t had access to modern farming methods or techniques available to other crops, resulting in the national average teff yield being very low compared with those for wheat and other cereals. Yields can be raised through improved farming methods, Tadele said. And the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency is focused on increasing teff production to at least match domestic demand, after which exporting becomes more viable.
But there is a risk the Ethiopian government’s efforts to boost teff production could undermine the very qualities that make teff so valuable abroad.
“Current government efforts to produce and disseminate pure elite lines [of teff] in the name of herbicide resistance and centralized control are a direct threat to these qualities,” said Idaho-based farmer Wayne Carlson, one of the first to bring teff to the U.S. He explained how Ethiopian teff farmed with cattle ensures it’s organically inoculated with various yeast and other bacteria. But large scale machine-produced teff doesn’t acquire this natural inoculation, and injera made from it would likely require a commercial yeast source like other modern breads, he said.
Then there are those cautionary tales about other superfoods to give the Ethiopian government pause. In the quinoa-growing countries of Bolivia and Peru, reports of rising incomes for farmers, thanks to global trade, coincided with reports of malnutrition for locals unable to afford higher local prices and of conflicts over land as farmers sold entire crops to meet Western demand. Increasing health food consciousness in the West is changing how food markets traditionally operated.
“Historically, Americans have eaten what they’ve been told by agribusiness,” said Jack Ceadel, a co-founder of Hopper Foods in Austin, Texas, which sells health foods made from insects. “Now there is certainly a major trend of greater engagement with food and where it comes from, leading to a rejection of industrial food.”
While this should represent an opportunity for teff, the problem remains that harvests haven’t kept pace with Ethiopia’s increasing population. In an effort to keep prices down, the Ethiopian government implemented an export ban on raw teff.
But increasing global demand for teff doesn’t have to turn to Ethiopia. Unlike quinoa, with production limited to Bolivia and Peru, teff can be grown in other countries with soil and weather conditions like Ethiopia’s. These range from Mediterranean countries to Australia and to states such as Idaho.
“The Teff Co. started to supply Ethiopian immigrants in 1984,” Carlson said of his business’ origin. During the mid-1970s in Ethiopia, a communist coup followed by years of civil war led to waves of emigration. Today, Ethiopians are the second-largest group of African immigrants to the U.S., after Nigerians. “A lot of the early interest by non-Ethiopians grew from exposure to the food in their restaurants and other social contacts,” Carlson said.
Recreating the genuine teff taste is not guaranteed, however. U.S. farmers grow about 15 varieties of teff, while nearly 4,000 varieties have been identified in Ethiopia. Teff grown in America comes in two basic shades: dark or light. Ethiopian teff comes in a variety of colors, from yellow to white to dark red.
“In America, injera is made with teff mixed with wheat and barley, but we make it with only water and teff,” said Hailu Tessema, the founder of Mama Fresh, Ethiopia’s first large-scale producer of teff products — responsible for sending those batches of injera to Washington. He added how Ethiopia’s particular weather, water and soil all go toward influencing the taste and quality of its teff.
If there is no beating Ethiopian teff and foreign markets respond accordingly, the Ethiopian government could gain an important source of foreign cash and a means to boost the livelihoods of millions of its farmers.
“The opportunity it presents to the country is significant, and the benefit over the long term will far outweigh the risks,” said Matthew Davis, a partner at U.S.-based Renew Strategies, an early-stage venture capital company investing in Mama Fresh’s plans. He said that it’s likely the government will eventually lift the ban.
“Already teff is leaving the country illegally across borders to Djibouti, Somalia and beyond to the West. You might as well control it and get some tax revenue from it, and everybody’s happy,” he said. He added the government, wary of societal implications should local prices rise even more, will likely proceed cautiously and give licenses only to a select group of exporting companies.
“A shortage of teff would be like asking an Ethiopian not to breathe,” Sirak-Kebede said.