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Teff love: Ethiopia’s staple crop requires a big push

Increasing interest in gluten-free food products, could lead to a surge in international demand for teff, creating an opportunity for growth. But, for Ethiopia to benefit from any such growth, it needs to build up reliable and sustainable supply chains that can deliver quality products, writes Bart Minten and Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse.

Not too long ago, teff, a gluten-free, nutrient-rich, 3,000-year-old grain native to Ethiopia, made international headlines when the world woke up to the potential of this poppy-sized wonder, instantly terming it as the next ‘supergrain’ and elevating it to the league of other exotic grains such as quinoa, farro and millet.

For teff’s global stardom to translate into a boon for majority of its poor Ethiopian growers, however, requires a series of initiatives to improve both its production and marketability.

Teff is intricately integrated into the economic and social fabric of Ethiopia. What makes the crop truly unique is that it can be grown in weather conditions ranging from drought-stressed to adequate rainfall, making it a relatively low-risk and easy to store crop. As the country’s leading cash crop, it contributes significantly to farmers’ incomes.

It’s a source of livelihood for nearly 43 percent of all farmers in the country, a majority of whom are poor smallholders. Increasing teff production may seem like the most viable solution to pull farmers out of poverty and ensure food security, but it involves several challenges that we explore in our new book, “The Economics of Teff: Exploring Ethiopia’s Biggest Cash Crop”.

In our comprehensive review of the value chain of teff, we found the crop’s production and marketing faces several challenges, including adoption of modern technologies; seeds and fertilizer distribution system; labor force management and mechanization; and building markets. Also known as the orphan crop due to the relatively scant attention that it receives from the Ethiopian government, realizing the full potential of teff for contributing to Ethiopia’s economic growth and food security will require a multi-pronged approach and multi stakeholder participation.

One of the major challenges involved in increasing teff production is that the crop produces low yields, which discourages relying on it to ensure food security for a fast-growing Ethiopian population. Low productivity also means that its calorie output per hectare is limited compared with other crops, and given the country’s scarcity of land, it constitutes a considerable constraint on the expansion of teff.

Its expansion at the expense of other, higher-yield crops—such as maize, wheat, barley and sorghum—would pose significant challenges to achieving food security, especially for poor families who cannot afford to farm or purchase this crop.

Overcoming these challenges and enhancing teff productivity requires a multipronged approach, beginning with strengthening agricultural research and extension. Higher investments in research will improve the adoption rates of high-performing resilient seed strains, which are likely to deliver large payoffs. Improved monitoring and evaluation of uptake of modern technologies can help in fine-tuning technologies, extension packages and messages—that in turn can lead to successful scaling-up.

Combining improved farming inputs with access to good and inclusive distribution systems for seeds or fertilizers, will help to further encourage adoption rates. Given the rising cost of labor, more investments are required in readily available, affordable and sturdy multipurpose mechanized planters and harvesters; and their spare parts. Additionally, storage and processing technologies require upgradation to reduce losses and smooth out teff supply over the years.

All these initiatives, however, come to naught if not accompanied by sustained efforts to expand domestic and international markets. On the domestic side, the changing socio-economic profile of urbanized and affluent Ethiopians will generate demand for high quality teff flour and processed teff products, which in turn require policies supportive of a modern retail environment.

Globally, increasing interest in gluten-free food products, could lead to a surge in international demand for teff, creating an opportunity for growth. But, for Ethiopia to benefit from any such growth, it needs to build up reliable and sustainable supply chains that can deliver quality products.

Even as international hype and demand around teff builds up, an overarching concern remains: Can an Ethiopian farmer benefit from global export markets without jeopardizing domestic consumption? For about a decade, Ethiopia had banned the export of unprocessed teff grain to insulate domestic prices from global price fluctuations. Rapid growth in supply for the export market could be supported in situations where tradeoffs with domestic consumption are limited and agronomic and climatic conditions permit increased yields.

Teff might as well emerge as Ethiopia’s crowning glory, but realizing its full potential requires public-sector leadership, investment and a robust private-sector, supported by more active public policy and public-private partnerships.

Ed.’s Note: Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse and Bart Minten are senior research fellows at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Minten is also the program leader of the Ethiopia Strategy Support Program. The post first appeared on Thomas Reuters Foundations News website. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Contributed by Bart Minten and Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse
Contributed by Bart Minten and Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse