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Move over quinoa, Ethiopia’s teff poised to be next big super grain

Harvested Teff in Ethiopia

Mounds of teff dry in fields in Ethiopia. The gluten-free grain is used to make flour for injera, the national dish. Photograph: Julio Etchart/Alamy


Powered by article titled “Move over quinoa, Ethiopia’s teff poised to be next big super grain” was written by Claire Provost and Elissa Jobson in Addis Ababa, for on Thursday 23rd January 2014 08.00 UTC

At Addis Ababa airport, visitors are greeted by pictures of golden grains, minute ochre-red seeds and a group of men gathered around a giant pancake. Billboards boast: “Teff: the ultimate gluten-free crop!”

Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries, well-known for its precarious food security situation. But it is also the native home of teff, a highly nutritious ancient grain increasingly finding its way into health-food shops and supermarkets in Europe and America.

Teffs tiny seeds – the size of poppy seeds – are high in calcium, iron and protein, and boast an impressive set of amino acids. Naturally gluten-free, the grain can substitute for wheat flour in anything from bread and pasta to waffles and pizza bases. Like quinoa, the Andean grain, teff’s superb nutritional profile offers the promise of new and lucrative markets in the west.

In Ethiopia, teff is a national obsession. Grown by an estimated 6.3 million farmers, fields of the crop cover more than 20% of all land under cultivation. Ground into flour and used to make injera, the spongy fermented flatbread that is basic to Ethiopian cuisine, the grain is central to many religious and cultural ceremonies. Across the country, and in neighbouring Eritrea, diners gather around large pieces of injera, which doubles as cutlery, scooping up stews and feeding one another as a sign of loyalty or friendship – a tradition known as gursha.

Outside diaspora communities in the west, teff has flown under the radar for decades. But growing appetite for traditional crops and booming health-food and gluten-free markets are breathing new life into the grain, increasingly touted as Ethiopia’s “second gift to the world”, after coffee.

Sophie Kebede, a London-based entrepreneur who, with her husband, owns Tobia Teff, a UK company specialising in the grain, says she was “flabbergasted” when she discovered its nutritional value. “I didn’t know it was so sought after … I am of Ethiopian origin; I’ve been eating injera all my life.”

The gluten-free market is the backbone of Kebede’s business. Today, Planet Organic shops in London stock 1kg bags of Tobia Teff flour (£7 each), while 300g packets of its teff breakfast cereal sit alongside milled flaxseed and organic, sugar-free Swiss muesli, and cost £5.44 The company also sells readymade, gluten-free teff bread with raisin, onion, sunflower and other varieties. (Teff is available at other UK stockists).

As western consumers acquire a taste for teff, how to ensure that Ethiopia and its farmers benefit from new global markets is a critical question. Growing demand for so-called ancient grains has not always been a straightforward win for poor communities. In Bolivia and Peru, reports of rising incomes owing to the now-global quinoa trade have come alongside those of malnutrition and conflicts over land as farmers sell their entire crop to meet western demand.

Teff Seeds

The tiny seeds are rich in nutrients. Photograph: Elissa Jobson

Ethiopia’s growing middle class is also pushing up demand for teff, and rising domestic prices over the past decade have put the grain out of reach of the poorest. Today, most small farmers sell the bulk of what they grow to consumers in the city.

This may have helped boost incomes in some rural areas but it has had nutritional consequences, says the government, as teff is the most nutritionally valuable grain in the country. Estimates suggest that while those in urban areas eat up to 61kg of teff a year, in rural areas, the figure is 20kg.


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