Many traditional meals in Ethiopia centre around a grass grain called teff. This small grain is ground into flour to make a pancake-style bread known as injera. The flat injera is either used as a ‘plate’ for stews or torn off in chunks and dipped in dishes and sauces.
Teff seeds may be tiny compared with other common grains such as wheat or barley, but they are packed with goodness. High in calcium, iron and protein, teff could be described as a ‘super grain’. Gram for gram, it contains more fibre-rich bran and nutritious germ than any other grain. And since it’s naturally gluten-free, teff also makes a good substitute for wheat flour.
A growing western market
Just as quinoa has been adopted by health-conscious consumers in the West, teff is now being seen as an excellent wheat alternative. Increasingly, it can be found in health-food shops and supermarkets in Europe and America. This presents a growing opportunity for Ethiopia’s farmers. There are more than 6 million teff growers in Ethiopia and the crop covers at least a fifth of all land under cultivation. However, some agricultural experts are worried about the possible effect of teff exports.
Reports from Bolivia and Peru suggest that the global trade in quinoa has led to increasing malnutrition and conflicts over land. According to a recent article in the Guardian, the growing demand for teff, particularly among Ethiopia’s expanding middle class, is already causing domestic prices for the grain to rise. This means small farmers are selling the bulk of their crop to urban consumers and the grain is no longer within reach of many poor rural Ethiopians.
Lessons to learn
Last year the Ethiopian government set out plans to double teff production by 2015. Government strategy sees teff playing an important role in reducing malnutrition through its inclusion in school meals and emergency food programmes. Despite the country’s growing economy, Ethiopia is still a least-developed nation and 29% of the country’s under-fives remain underweight (according to the World Health Organisation). The UN’s World Food Programme estimates that malnutrition could be costing the country 16.5% of its gross domestic product.
Currently exports of teff are tightly controlled, but with growing market opportunities, this could change. With improved grain varieties and better planting techniques, harvests can certainly be boosted in the future. Nevertheless, experts warn that lessons from South America should be learnt. Careful planning is needed to make sure that business and export interests are not put ahead of domestic consumers and small farmers. Otherwise, any teff boom could come at the expense of the poorest Ethiopians.
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