Global craving for ancient Ethiopian grain offers opportunities, pitfalls

Teff is heralded as superfood, as Addis Ababa tries to ensure local population isn’t adversely affected

Aljazeera
by James Jeffrey
April 25, 2015

A farmer works his oxen over teff grass to thresh the grain during harvest in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray.James Jeffrey
A farmer works his oxen over teff grass to thresh the grain during harvest in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray.James Jeffrey

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Six days a week, an Ethiopian Airlines flight departs for Washington, D.C., with a fresh batch of 3,000 injera on board. This pancake-shaped pale spongy bread is a centuries-old Ethiopian staple made from teff, an indigenous tiny grain now making a global name for itself as a health food.

Outside Ethiopian diaspora communities — and Ethiopian restaurants — teff remained largely anonymous for decades. But growing appetites for traditional crops and nutritious foods mean customers ranging from families to hipsters in New York and London are now seeking their fix too. The crop is now grown in about 25 U.S. states, but Ethiopians claim you can’t beat teff grown in its homeland for flavor and quality.

Previously heralded so-called superfoods, however, such as Andean quinoa, have illustrated hidden consequences for locals when their indigenous staples find eager customers in more affluent countries. Even before the growth in international demand, poor Ethiopians were struggling to afford increasingly expensive teff.

“A piece of injera used to cost about 50 santeem ($0.02), but now it’s nearly four Ethiopian birr ($0.19),” said Nathaniel, the manager of a hotel in the eastern Ethiopian town of Dire Dawa. It’s estimated that 29 percent of Ethiopia’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

Nathaniel said that the tables on the hotel terrace lacked lunch patrons because people can’t afford to eat out and that many locals, faced with low incomes and high food prices, skip breakfast each day and eat only a midmorning snack followed by an injera-based meal later in the afternoon.

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