The crop, mostly grown in the Horn of Africa, is a key part of the country’s heritage and a crucial food staple, but is also gaining increased interest abroad among health aficionados seeking a nutritious, gluten-free alternative to wheat. In Ethiopia, teff is used to make injera, a spongy fermented pancake topped with meat or vegetable stew and consumed with an almost religious devotion, often three times a day. It is also a resilient crop; it can grow between sea level and 3,000 metres and is both drought- and flood-resistant, ideal for Ethiopia’s dry highlands.
Relatively unknown outside of Ethiopia — for now — the cereal is predicted to replace quinoa as the latest global “super-food”.
But a ban on exports to control price hikes at home has left farmers tied to local consumers, limiting their contribution to growing markets abroad.
The poppyseed sized grain is renowned for its nutritional qualities. Mineral-rich and high in protein, teff is also a slow-releasing food, ideal for diabetics, and sought after by people with a gluten intolerance, or Celiac disease.
But despite its versatility, Ethiopia’s 6.5 million teff farmers struggle to meet local demand — let alone growing demand from abroad — with limited access to seed varieties, fertilisers and modern machinery that would allow for higher yields.
Teff also suffers from a lack of research since it is considered an “orphan crop”, unlike global crops like rice, wheat, and maize, which are widely studied and well-funded.
Regardless, productivity has climbed to bridge the supply gap, with the introduction of 19 new teff varieties and improved farming techniques.
In the last four years, yields have increased from 1.2 to 1.5 million tonnes per hectare. An estimated two million tonnes per hectare is required to reach export potential. For now, the ban on exports remains in place to avoid the pitfalls of quinoa in Bolivia, where most people could not afford the staple crop after the surge in global popularity.
The price of teff — $72 (Dh264.46) per quintal — is already too expensive for the majority of Ethiopians who earn less than two dollars per day.
But farmers are eager to export their teff, well aware of the higher prices they can fetch.