Teff: The world’s next super grain


At harvest time, in Ethiopia, farmers are seen using pitchforks and throwing dry grass (called LOVEGRASS) into the air in an ancient process known as “winnowing” to dislodge the seeds.  The seed or grain, in question, is called TEFF, the “world’s next super grain”.
MDG : Mounds of teff grain dry in fields in EthiopiaEthiopians have been growing and obsessing about TEFF for millennia, and it may become the NEW SUPER GRAIN (of choice) in Europe and North America, overtaking the likes of QUINOA & SPELT.
High in “protein” and “calcium” and “gluten-free”, TEFF is already popular on the international stage.  Yet, as TEFF is a staple foodstuff in Ethiopia, particularly when turned into a “grey flatbread (like a pancake) called INJERA”, the country currently has a long-standing ban on exporting the grain, either in its raw form or after it has been ground into flour.  Instead entrepreneurial Ethiopian Companies can, at present, only export INJERA and other cooked TEFF products such as cakes and biscuits.
injera-enjera-ethopian-teff-fermented-bread-r100However, the hope is that if Ethiopia can sufficiently increase its TEFF harvest, then exports of the grain itself may be able to start in the not distant future.  “We started from scratch, and are now introducing our traditional food all over the world,” says Hailu Tessema, founder of MAMA FRESH, Ethiopia’s 1st large-scale producer of INJERA.  6 days, every week, MAMA FRESH uses Ethiopian Airlines to fly 3,000 INJERA flatbreads from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to Washington DC, in the US.  INJERA is also flown to Sweden thrice a week, Norway twice a week and Germany thrice a month.
“Demand is increasing by about 10% every month,” says Mr. Tessema, 60, who does not see the ban on exporting TEFF seeds as a problem.  “It’s better to export a “value-added product” as that creates more jobs.”  MAMA FRESH employs more than 100 people, and plans to take on 50 more this year (2015).  It also works with 300 farmers supplying TEFF.  Mr. Tessema started the business in 2003 with 100,000 “birr” ($5,000, 225 pounds), operating out of a rickety shack.  The firm’s annual revenue now stands at around 17 million “birr” ($836,000, 566,00 pounds) and, in 2014, the business moved into a new factor.
teff grainInside the factory, blue barrels contain TEFF flour mixed with water, which is left to ferment for 4 days.  Afterwards, women pour small jug-size amounts onto heated-clay cookers to sizzle and become INJERA, ready for packaging and speedy onward flight to eager overseas customers, mainly diaspora Ethiopians. A “tiny grain, the size of a poppy seed”, TEFF, is ground into a flour which can also be made into “loaves” of European-style risen bread or pasta.
At London-based business TOBIA TEFF, they use US-grown TEFF to make various breads and a porridge.  “People are dreaming of TEFF, nowadays, after 1000s of years, it has become the “trendy thing” over here,” says Sophie Sirak-Kebede, the owner of TOBIA TEFF, whose sales have increased up to 40% during the last 14 months.  Even the UK’s National Health Service has become a customer to cater for “gluten-intolerant” patients.
The Achilles Heel —— Despite praise for TEFF’s nutritional properties, its previously sheltered existence, in Ethiopia, comes with a drawback.  “TEFF does not give much yield,” says Zerihun Tadele, an Ethiopian researcher at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the University of Bern, Switzerland.  “Very little research and investment has been done on the crop.”  The average yield, per hectare of TEFF, in Ethiopia, is 1.4tonnes, which is less than half as much as the global average of 3.2tonnes for modern varieties of wheat.  Mr. Tadele hopes that through research and improved farming methods, TEFF yields, in Ethiopia, can be raised to 5tonnes a hectare.  This improvement will not come soon enough, because recent TEFF harvests have failed to keep pace with Ethiopia’s increasing population, driving prices beyond many Ethiopian’s pockets, especially outside Addis Ababa.  This situation creates a dilemma, because TEFF is Ethiopia’s “backbone.”  A shortage of TEFF would be like asking as Ethiopian “not to breathe.”  But at the same time the Government should not squander a global opportunity that could benefit the more than 6 million farmers in the country that grow the seed, while also generating valuable foreign currency.
The Government’s Agricultural Transformation Agency is now focused on increasing TEFF production to at least match domestic demand, after which exporting seeds and flour may become possible.  “If Ethiopia’s TEFF export ban is ever lifted, I would want to buy land in Ethiopia to farm the crop for my UK business,” says Sophie Sirak-Kebede.  “Being of Ethiopian origin, I would prefer to get TEFF from Ethiopia.”  Who better than an Ethiopian farmer when it comes to TEFF ?  ——– THE QUALITY IS INCOMPARABLE.
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