The East African “miracle grain” that could become the next quinoa

Coming to a Whole Foods near you.
Coming to a Whole Foods near you.
Image: Reuters/Charlie Riedel
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There’s a huge business opportunity hiding in the fields of East Africa.

Teff, a golden, wheat-like grain, has quinoa-like potential. It’s gluten-free, and boasts all kinds of highly marketable health traits that have made quinoa such a hit in countries like the United States: high in calcium, protein, iron, and amino acids. Teff even helps keep blood sugar levels steady, making it ideal for diabetics.

“Many people consider teff to be a super-food,” Khalid Bomba, CEO of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency, told Ugandan newspaper New Vision.

Ethiopia is swimming in the stuff. About a fifth of the nation’s harvested land is dedicated to harvesting teff, and the government wants to double production of the grain by 2015. Locally, it’s used to make a popular flatbread called injera. Between 2001 and 2007, teff accounted for over 11% of Ethiopian calorie intake (pdf).

But teff is also similar to quinoa in another, more problematic respect, which has complicated the grain’s growth. Quinoa was once as unknown to the North American diet as teff is today. Positioning it as a miracle food—packed with protein but not gluten, full of nutrients but not calories—helped international sales soar. That has been a mixed blessing for the leading exporters of quinoa. In Bolivia, quinoa prices skyrocketed by 900% between 2000 and 2013, making it hard for Bolivians to enjoy the crop themselves.

Exporting teff to the rest of world could lead to a similar fate in Ethiopia. Fearing just that, the Ethiopian government banned exports of raw teff grain in 2006. Teff exports fell from nearly 34,000 tonnes (37,500 tons) in 2005 to just 30 tonnes in 2009 (pdf p. 12).

But there’s reason to believe the insularity of Ethiopia’s teff industry could be doing it more harm than good. Disallowing exports may be helping to stem prices a bit, but teff is still getting more popular and more expensive within Ethiopia. Higher local prices (pdf) have already led to a significant discrepancy between urban and rural consumption of the grain: The average urban dweller consumes roughly three times (pdf) as much teff as her counterpart in rural parts of the country.

Without an international export market, farmers have little room to grow their wallets, and the industry isn’t getting the biotech money it needs to become more efficient. At the moment, most Ethiopian farmers lack the sort of modern machinery needed to meet even domestic demand. But if Ethiopia were to open up its teff market, promoting investment in the teff industry, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the African crop as the West’s next big exotic health grain.

Ethiopia should act fast. Aware of teff’s potential, American farmers have already been experimenting with the grain.