Global craving for ancient Ethiopian grain offers opportunities, pitfalls

“Historically, Americans have eaten what they’ve been told by agribusiness,” said Jack Ceadel, a co-founder of Hopper Foods in Austin, Texas, which sells health foods made from insects. “Now there is certainly a major trend of greater engagement with food and where it comes from, leading to a rejection of industrial food.”

While this should represent an opportunity for teff, the problem remains that harvests haven’t kept pace with Ethiopia’s increasing population. In an effort to keep prices down, the Ethiopian government implemented an export ban on raw teff.

But increasing global demand for teff doesn’t have to turn to Ethiopia. Unlike quinoa, with production limited to Bolivia and Peru, teff can be grown in other countries with soil and weather conditions like Ethiopia’s. These range from Mediterranean countries to Australia and to states such as Idaho.

“The Teff Co. started to supply Ethiopian immigrants in 1984,” Carlson said of his business’ origin. During the mid-1970s in Ethiopia, a communist coup followed by years of civil war led to waves of emigration. Today, Ethiopians are the second-largest group of African immigrants to the U.S., after Nigerians. “A lot of the early interest by non-Ethiopians grew from exposure to the food in their restaurants and other social contacts,” Carlson said.

Recreating the genuine teff taste is not guaranteed, however. U.S. farmers grow about 15 varieties of teff, while nearly 4,000 varieties have been identified in Ethiopia. Teff grown in America comes in two basic shades: dark or light. Ethiopian teff comes in a variety of colors, from yellow to white to dark red.

“In America, injera is made with teff mixed with wheat and barley, but we make it with only water and teff,” said Hailu Tessema, the founder of Mama Fresh, Ethiopia’s first large-scale producer of teff products — responsible for sending those batches of injera to Washington. He added how Ethiopia’s particular weather, water and soil all go toward influencing the taste and quality of its teff.

If there is no beating Ethiopian teff and foreign markets respond accordingly, the Ethiopian government could gain an important source of foreign cash and a means to boost the livelihoods of millions of its farmers.

“The opportunity it presents to the country is significant, and the benefit over the long term will far outweigh the risks,” said Matthew Davis, a partner at U.S.-based Renew Strategies, an early-stage venture capital company investing in Mama Fresh’s plans. He said that it’s likely the government will eventually lift the ban.

“Already teff is leaving the country illegally across borders to Djibouti, Somalia and beyond to the West. You might as well control it and get some tax revenue from it, and everybody’s happy,” he said. He added the government, wary of societal implications should local prices rise even more, will likely proceed cautiously and give licenses only to a select group of exporting companies.

“A shortage of teff would be like asking an Ethiopian not to breathe,” Sirak-Kebede said.

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