Kenyan farmers quench demand for Ethiopian cuisine with teff

As Kenyans warm to foreign cuisines and specialist restaurants, farmers are cashing in on the growing demand for foreign raw materials such as Ethiopian crop teff, now being piloted by farmers around Mlolongo and Athi River for use as the main ingredient for Ethiopian delicacy Injera, a flat, spongy, slightly sour bread eaten with most Ethiopian meals.

The farmers started trialing the crop after a visit by an Eritrean farmer with sample seeds, and are now upscaling following early successes. “This is after a couple of Ethiopian hotels in the city responded to our request to supply them with teff. So for the first time we have harvested, we have managed to sell about 10 bags.

That positive experience we have had with this plant in terms of the plant being easy to manage and farm has given us the impetus to try further,” said Arthur Kioko, a farmer involved in teff farming.

Supplying one and half bag returned him Sh10,000 in what the owner of Gebre Cuisine Hotel in Nairobi’s Hurlingham said was a relatively cheaper option than buying from Ethiopian traders, who charge from Sh15,000 to Sh20,000 a bag.

“When they came to us with the idea of supplying us and they were Kenyan farmers, we doubted them. So we picked a few samples to try and they were as good as those grown by Ethiopian farmers. We certainly hope to do business with these farmers if they can sustain their supplies and sell at a reasonable price, because at the end of the day we are a business and are looking at how we can buy reasonably,” said Bulbulla, the owner of Gebre Cuisine.

Indigenous to the dry plateaus of north-eastern Africa, teff is a grain that has been growing steadily more fashionable internationally, as an option for people with gluten allergies, spawning production from Kansas, known as the breadbasket of the USA, to the valleys of Australia’s Murray–Darling basin.

Its name is thought to come from the Amharic word teffa, meaning “lost”, because the grains of the plant are very small and are often dropped by farmers. It threshes well with standard methods and equipment. Very early-maturing types are ready to harvest in 45-60 days.

Yields range from 300 to 3,000 kg per hectare. And although the national average in Ethiopia is estimated to be about 910 kg per hectare, scientists argue that yields of 2,000-2,200 kg per hectare are routinely attainable on good agronomic practices. Yields of 2,000 kg per hectare have been achieved on South African farms, although storms have sometimes leveled the fields, resulting in large losses.

The grain is easy to store and will survive for many years in traditional storehouses without damage by insects. This makes it a valuable safeguard against famine. Farmers harvest the teff and then grind it into flour which they then sell.

Yet this heirloom grain became almost lost to the modern world when the government of Ethiopia in an effort to compete in the global market discouraged the growing of teff and encouraged farmers to grow wheat, rice, corn and millet instead.

Ethiopian farmers stuck to the crop, however, and nowadays plant nearly 1.4m hectares of teff a year, with the crop accounting for about a quarter of the country’s total cereal production. Teff grows well under difficult conditions including unpredictable rainfall and is usually left alone by pests and disease, making it a promising crop for areas facing food security. The US National Research Council, in a report Lost Crops of Africa, noted that teff has the “potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development, and support sustainable landcare.”

According to Ayurveda India, the global leader in herbal healthcare, this healthy grain is a "sattva" food, meaning it calms and focuses the mind, and it is "tridosha", meaning it is good for all body types. The grain is high in fibre and low in fat. One cup gives 32 per cent of daily calcium needs, and 80 per cent of iron, and it is also a good source of zinc, magnesium, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, copper, manganese, boron, phosphorus and potassium. While not a complete protein, a 2 ounce serving also contains 7 grams of protein.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter