Gluten-free and rich in protein, fiber and minerals, Teff is starting to gain a foothold as a new “superfood”, along the likes of quinoa and spelt.
The grain has been grown in Ethiopia for thousands of years, but its export was banned by the government until this year. Now it is appearing on supermarket shelves worldwide.
It’s also the main ingredient of injera, the flat pancakes that are the centerpiece of Ethiopian food and the source of livelihood for around 6.5 million small farmers.
“When you look across Ethiopia, Teff is the most important commodity for Ethiopia, both on the production side as well as the consumption side,” says Khalid Bomba, the CEO of the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency. “Teff is native to the country, but is also a huge part of our culture.”
The Ethiopian government ended the export of raw teff in 2006, as rising grain prices prompted fears of a food crisis. Processed teff — in the form of injera — was still exported, mainly to the Ethiopian diaspora in northern Europe, the Middle East and North America.
The export ban was partially lifted this year, after investments in mechanization and better farming techniques increased yields by 40%.
“The concern that the Ethiopian government had in the past about exporting was in making sure that there was sufficient amount of supply for the domestic market — for urban consumers, as well as the rural poor,” Bomba says. “[Rising yields] have given the government confidence that systematic exports of Teff can gain smallholder farmers in Ethiopia… increased income, without harming the domestic consumers.”
Lifting the ban could create a new and lucrative export industry for Ethiopia, as consumers in Europe and North America latch onto the nutritional properties of teff. Teff flour sells for around $6-10 per pound, and the gluten-free seeds are now in high demand at health food shops the world over.
Hailu Tessema, CEO of Mama Fresh, which exports injera to the US and Scandinavia, says that the demand is growing, and importers from countries across Europe and Africa have approached him looking to secure supplies.
“Every year, the demand increases by foreigners from 7-10%,” he says. “So that is good for us, we have got the business in our hands; we have a market.”