teff- just entrepreneurs

The seed, or grain, in question is called teff – never heard of it? Well it is hailed to be the next super grain, overtaking the popular quinoa.

Ethiopians have been growing and obsessing about teff for centuries, and it may become the new "super grain" of choice in Europe and North America. High in protein and calcium, and gluten-free, teff is already growing in popularity on the international stage – queue the new business ventures.

Yet as teff is a staple foodstuff in Ethiopia, particularly when turned into a grey flatbread called injera, the country currently has a long-standing ban on exporting the grain, either in its raw form, or after it has been ground into flour.

Instead, entrepreneurial Ethiopian companies can at present only export injera and other cooked teff products, such as cakes and biscuits. The hope is that if Ethiopia can sufficiently increase its teff harvest, then exports of the grain itself may be able to start in the not too distant future.

Teff facts

  • Teff is the seed of a grass native to Ethiopia known as lovegrass
  • It was one of the earliest cultivated plants
  • In Ethiopia teff is most often made into a pancake called injera, which is often used as a plate, with other foods placed on top
  • Gluten free

Yet despite praise for teff's nutritional properties, its previously sheltered existence in Ethiopia comes with a drawback.

"Teff does not give much yield," says Zerihun Tadele, an Ethiopian researcher at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the University of Bern, Switzerland. "Very little research and investment has been done on the crop."

Teff is currently being sold by a small business called Mama Fresh, Ethiopia's first large-scale producer of injera. Six days every week Mama Fresh uses Ethiopian Airlines to fly 3,000 injera flatbreads from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to Washington DC in the US.

Injera is also flown to Sweden three times a week, Norway twice a week, and Germany three times a month.

"Demand is increasing by about 10% every month," says Mr Tessema, 60, founder of Mama Fresh who does not see the ban on exporting teff seeds as a problem.

Mama Fresh employs more than 100 people, and plans to take on another 50 this year. It also works with 300 farmers supplying teff. Mr Tessema started the business in 2003 with 100,000 Ethiopian birr ($5,000; £3,225), operating out of a rickety shack.

The firm's annual revenue now stands at around 17m birr ($836,000; £566,000), and last year the business moved into a new factory.

As the news is flowing around the globe, London-based business, Tobia Teff, uses US-grown teff to make various breads and a porridge. The company was founded by British-Ethiopian co-owner Sophie Sirak-Kebede, who originally opened an Ethiopian restaurant in the UK capital in 2003..

Even the UK's National Health Service has become a customer to cater for gluten-intolerant patients.

Will teff be the next big super grain in the UK? Well I don’t see why not, with all the nutrients and health benefits it has to offer, the only issue I can see is exportation – would Ethopia ever lift the ban on exporting the raw grains? Who knows!

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