There are two inescapable foods in Ethiopia, coffee and teff. While Ethiopian coffee is famous worldwide, the country’s staple grain is still a stranger to western palates. But food entrepreneurs hope teff will soon be as ubiquitous in British supermarkets as it is in Addis Ababa’s kitchens.
Ethiopians have been planting teff – the base of their renowned injera bread – for more than 3,000 years. Yet for businessmen like Aleem Ahmed, this gluten-free grain, packed with amino acids, has the potential to become a lucrative superfood. Companies like Ahmed’s Love Grain in the US or Tobia Teff in the UK want to provide westerners with a healthier alternative to wheat while helping Ethiopian farmers thrive.
A big caveat: exports of teff from Ethiopia were banned for almost a decade. In 2006, the government outlawed international sales of the grain for fear of suffering the same fate as Bolivia during the recent “quinoa fever”. After being branded a superfood, demand for this Andean grain skyrocketed, increasing its price tenfold between 2009 and 2013, with some claiming this affected food security in the Andes.
In Ethiopia, where one in ten people were in need of food assistance this year, a similar spike in teff prices could have serious humanitarian consequences. Khalid Bomba, the head of the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), said that the Ethiopian government had been following the developments in Bolivia and Peru very closely. “What happened with quinoa will not happen with teff. We just won’t let it,” he says.
But these fears are subsiding. Teff yields have increased by 50% in the last five years, according to the ATA, and prices have remained steady, prompting the government to partially lift the export ban.
In the past year, export licenses have been granted to 48 commercial farmers. None of them were planting teff before, which is meant to ensure that their sales won’t diminish domestic production. “We are just starting but we think teff certainly has the potential to become the next superfood,” says Bomba.
If this trial project is successful, ATA’s goal is to open it up to cooperatives of smallholder farmers who are already planting teff.
The global market for teff is growing by the day. Gluten-free products are a £3.7bn industry globally with demand estimated to grow 10% each year between 2015 and 2020. Like quinoa, teff’s low-glycemic index makes it suitable for diabetics – but the Ethiopian grain has twice the iron and three times more calcium than its Bolivian competitor.
Based in north London, Tobia Teff has been selling teff products since 2007 and providing the National Health Service with flour and bread for patients suffering from gluten intolerance. Founded by a couple of Ethiopian origin, the company has been buying its teff from a producer in southern Spain, but recently applied to become an Ethiopian importer. “Ethiopians should be the ones benefiting from their staple crop,” says co-owner Sophie Sirak-Kebede, “it’s their right, it’s their history.”
In California, Ahmed and his team at Love Grain are trying to cook teff into American staples, from pancake mix to power bars. “The key to teff going mainstream is incorporating it into products people already know,” says the MIT graduate who previously worked in Ethiopia helping teff farmers increase their yields. Early next year, the startup is launching its first line of chips made using Ethiopian teff, featuring flavors like barbecue and cheese and onion.
Increased exports could be a boon to many of the country’s 6.2 million teff farmers because international market prices are often double local ones. “Working for exporters allows us to earn more and have consistent business,” says Bedlu Mengistu, a 38-year-old who grows teff in the Oromia region. His main client is Mama Fresh, a company that sells injera to countries like Canada and Sweden.
Still, some worry that other countries will corner the teff market before Ethiopia is ready to export at a large scale. Most teff found in health food stores today comes from South Africa, Canada or India. “I am really worried Ethiopia will miss the boat,” says Jyothi Gaddam, whose company Neha International is one of the few allowed to sell teff abroad.
The main roadblock to Ethiopia increasing its surplus of teff for export is a lack of mechanisation. Most of the planting, harvesting and processing of the grain is still done manually and while the ATA says it’s promoting best practices and developing teff-specific machinery, farmers complain implementation has been slow.
Exports may actually help speed up the modernisation of teff farming, says Bomba. Increased demand would encourage research while the promise of a better income could incentivise farmers to streamline their methods and invest in machinery. As for the other countries selling teff, Sirak-Kebede is not worried. “Ethiopian teff will be known for its quality, just like coffee,” says the British entrepreneur. “You can find similar weather somewhere else, but it’s the soil that makes the difference. And you can’t replace the soil.”