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Ethiopia’s teff and the giant, new potential of a tiny, ancient grain

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Farmers harvest teff by hand near Negele, Ethiopia. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America Farmers harvest teff by hand near Negele, Ethiopia. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

Move over quinoa-lovers, this grain’s for you! But move over poor Ethiopians too?

Rebecca Rewald is the Administrative Assistant for the Policy & Research team at Oxfam America.

Ethiopia may soon be known for being the birthplace of the next “superfood” – teff. The first time I heard a non-Ethiopian talk about teff was when my friend last year told me that one of the gluten-free bloggers she followed religiously had written a profile about teff, claiming it was ideal for baking gluten-free brownies.

“It’s a grain found in Ethiopia,” my friend told me, “Have you heard of it before?”

“Have I heard of teff before?!”

Not only had I heard of it, but as an Ethiopian, I had grown up eating it regularly. Teff is the main ingredient in injera, the large, spongy pancakes that make up a large portion of the Ethiopian diet.

The sudden interest of teff by Americans surprised me, but I soon discovered that teff has recently gotten the same attention as other foreign foods that have huge health benefits like the acai berry and, of course, quinoa. Though teff was a regular part of my diet, I had no idea how nutritious the grain was. Here are some of the many benefits of teff:

  • It’s high in calcium, fiber, protein, iron, and vitamin C (among other minerals and vitamins).
  • It’s low in sodium, fat, and cholesterol.
  • It’s gluten-free.
  • It has a low glycemic index.
  • It’s versatile—can be used for baking, as a thickening agent, or eaten as a porridge.
  • It’s a high-yield crop that can grow in a variety of climates, making it a dependable crop.

Until recently, teff was virtually only grown in Ethiopia, though it can also be found in neighboring countries like Eritrea and Djibouti. But now, due to its rising global popularity, companies like Bob’s Red Mill, Love Grain, and Maskal Teff are growing and selling teff or teff products in the US and Europe. Apparently it’s got the perfect flavor and texture for baked goods, in addition to health benefits. Who knew? As teff becomes more popular, well-known chefs and bakers, health gurus, journalists, bloggers, and even celebrities are writing about and experimenting with different recipes that include teff.

So if Ethiopia is home to one of the most nutritious grains in the world, then like me, you might be thinking: why is Ethiopia continually facing hunger, malnutrition, and poor health? After some research, and much to my surprise, I found that teff consumption within Ethiopia isn’t as widespread as I thought. In fact, only the middle to upper middle class Ethiopians eat teff regularly because they’re the only ones that can afford it. High global demand for teff has driven the price of the grain to already make it too expensive for the lower class. Ethiopia’s lower class makes their injera, instead, with less-nutritious crops like maize, sorghum, and millet.

But is the solution to Ethiopia’s health and poverty woes right under their feet? Does teff have the potential to lift Ethiopia out of poverty? There isn’t any large-scale production of teff yet within Ethiopia. And there is actually an export ban on teff due to rising prices, though the Ethiopian government has committed to expanding teff production and lifting the export ban to build the teff market.

As with quinoa in Bolivia  and the acai berry in Brazil, Ethiopia is one of the only nations growing a health food gaining popularity around the world, and it has the potential to use that to the advantage of its own people. Could the Ethiopian government and private sector work together to expand the teff market in a way that benefits the 6 million small-scale farmers that grow teff in Ethiopia already? Enough so that not only would Ethiopians’ standard of living be improved substantially, but also so that they would be able to afford to actually eat the teff they grow and sell? Can an entire “fair trade” market in a country be created for such a valuable crop, rather than retroactively creating a slim “fair trade” teff segment of the market after most of the farmers, land, and crops have already been exploited for the sake of profit?

Going as far back to the spice trade via the Silk Road, when a food or resource gains global attention, the demand for the product leads to the exploitation of those who are already the poorest. Let’s hope that the expansion of the global teff market isn’t another predictable example of this, but rather, a refreshing scenario where a nation uses the potential of one crop to better the lives of all of its people.

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