Teff: Ethiopia’s Second Gift to the World?

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Ethiopian coffee is beloved throughout the world. Today, a modern Ethiopian export may become just as cherished by global consumers. 

Teff, the superfood you should eat

Teff—an indigenous grain—has been an Ethiopian food stable since ancient times.  Its tiny seeds are high in amino acids, protein, iron and calcium, and they’re gluten-free. Soon, it may rival quinoa and spelt in popularity, according to a BBC news analysis.

And it’s tasty! By itself, teff possesses a flavor one has to become used to. Sometimes its “bread” (injera) may seem bitter. But once you are used to it, it’s delicious with olive oil and pepper powder. It’s most commonly eaten by hand, soaking up juices of the famous “stews” that Ethiopian restaurants have made famous throughout the world: chickpea, lentil, chicken and meat “wats.”

I’m living in Vietnam, whose people are rightly proud of their fresh and healthy cuisine. But tonight I’d die some simple doro wat (chicken stew with injera)!

Can any food be too popular?

Throughout the world, teff was becoming so popular, the government banned its export from 2006 to 2012. (See this World Economic Forum Report.) Instead, Ethiopia only allowed the exportation of injera, a pancake-shaped bread made from teff, and other cooked teff products. The government feared that exporting the grain would significantly raise the cost of teff within the country. This would make teff too expensive for the average Ethiopian. This will continue to be a major economic and food sustainability challenge. 

Learning from past mistakes

As of March 2019, Ethiopia produces over 90 percent of the world’s teff. Today, about 48 farms under tight governmental control produce Ethiopian teff for export, according to a report in Geeska Afrika. The Ethiopian government recognizes the potential challenges, having seen the results of quinoa export from Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Locally inflated prices soon followed quinoa’s popularity in the international market. Regassa Feyissa, an Ethiopian agricultural scientist and former head of the national Institute for Biodiversity, warns that without careful planning, increased teff production for export may displace other important crops for farmers. Efforts to boost production could benefit business interests at the expense of the small farmer (quoted in a BBC news report).

Teff compared to other grains

In years past, Ethiopia has tried to encourage a diversity of food products, including the use of wheat, rice and corn. In fact, the Communist government of the 1970s and 1980s forced urban people to purchase these relatively unknown foods from government markets. In Ethiopia’s history, animals primarily ate corn, with only the poorest of the poor gnawing on a cob. Today, vendors roast cobs on street sidewalks throughout the country and corn is highly popular in cities and towns. Bakeries have proliferated throughout the country, selling a variety of standard breads and cakes. Neither corn nor wheat bread, however, comes close to matching the nutritional value of teff. Nor do they have the passionate cultural ties that teff has among the population.

Balancing supply and demand

So, while exciting for the global health benefits and the potential export income for a relatively poor country, there are significant concerns. BBC reports that despite the rapid economic growth in Ethiopia, over 20 percent of children under five are malnourished or suffer stunted growth. And, the UN’s World Food Programme estimates that the costs of chronic malnutrition could be worth 16.5 percent of GDP.

Teff may prove to the next global “superfood.” But its global demand must not adversely affect the health or pocketbook of Ethiopians, specifically the poor.

Scott’s books:

Those interested in the walking the joyful Christian path may be interested in reading my book, The Jesus Workout.If you prefer Christian suspense, try The Hyena Man, set in an African missionary company.

Scott and Gigi Martell have served with New International since 2009. Scott worked with Project Mercy in Ethiopia from 2007-2009. In 2009, Scott and Gigi established a mercy ministry in Ethiopia that empowers women and children and follows James 1:27.

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