Tef is a national obsession in Ethiopia. The tiny grain the size of poppy seeds has been consumed in this East African country for centuries.
Because of the gluten-free market, our business will doubleWomen eat a porridge made from it immediately after giving birth, and injera, the tef-based flatbread that is the staple of Ethiopian cuisine, is typically used in gursha, an act in which friends and family feed each other as a sign of love and loyalty.
Despite the Central Statistical Agency's forecast that tef production would rise to 197m kilograms in 2013/2014 from 157m kilograms in 2012/13, the appetite for tef is such that domestic demand currently outstrips production.
Due to population growth, high inflation and increased consumption by the middle classes, prices have risen rapidly. A kilo of tef retails for between 17 and 21 birr (about $1) in Addis Ababa.
While this may have resulted in higher incomes for some rural communities, the cost has put the grain out of the reach of the poorest and has led many subsistence farmers to send the bulk of their harvests to market.
Between 2.7m and 3m hectares of land is currently under tef cultivation, but there is little scope for increasing this, explains Tareke Berhe, director of the tef and rice value chains at the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA).
Yield is low, he says – on average just 1.3tn/ha – so this is where gains are being made.
The Ethiopian government wants to double production by 2015, ac- cording to the National Tef Working Strategy.
The ATA has been collaborating with the National Research Centre to design simple methods to achieve this goal.
"Because it is considered to be an orphan crop in international terms – something like 95% of the tef grown worldwide is grown in Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea – we don't have a lot of research being done on it," says Khalid Bomba, the chief executive of ATA.
As a result, he charged his tef team with finding an intervention that did not involve complex biotechnological interventions.
The ATA has since developed a three-pronged strategy known as TIRR: Tef Improved variety, Reduced seed Rate row planting.
Over the past two years, the ATA distributed a higher-yielding variety of tef and introduced row planting. Farmers previously used 30-50kg of seeds per hectare and this has been cut to just 2-3kg.
In April 2011, the ATA piloted the TIRR programme with two farmers who achieved yield in- creases of almost 50%.
In June of that year, it was scaled up to 1,400 smallholders across the four main tef-growing regions, producing gains of between 30% and 80%. Using the country's extension system, 400,000 farmers were trained in 2012. Last year, the government rolled out TIRR to more than two million farmers.
Outside Ethiopia, the demand for tef is beginning to grow as word spreads of its nutritional value, as it is rich in calcium, iron and protein.
However, the country's farmers are currently unable to take advantage of this newfound interest due to a ban on the export of unprocessed tef introduced in 2006.
The government has no immediate plans to lift the embargo, although this could change in the longer term if the goal of doubling production is realised.
Mama Fresh, an Addis-based family business that has been selling injera to the capital's top hotels and restaurants for more than a decade, is trying to carve itself a small slice of $6.2bn global health food market.
It exports around 10,000 pieces of injera per week to the United States (US), Germany, Sweden and Finland.
"Because of the gluten-free market, our business will double," says Hailu Tessema, managing director of Mama Fresh.
"Currently 90% of our exports are for the diaspora, but this will change. In the US we expect to sell 50% to the local market." ●