Can an Ethiopian farmer profit from the worldwide export of this gluten-free supergrain without jeopardizing domestic consumption?
Not so long ago, teff, a gluten-free, nutrient-rich 3,000-year-old, Ethiopian-born grain, has made international headlines when the world woke up to the potential of this poppy-sized wonder, and immediately called it the following & # 39; supergrain & # 39; and elevate to the competition of other exotic grains such as quinoa, farro and millet.
To translate the worldwide success of teff for the majority of its poor Ethiopian growers into a blessing for the majority, however, a number of initiatives are needed to improve both production and marketability.
Teff is closely integrated into the economic and social fabric of Ethiopia. What really makes the crop unique is that it can be grown in weather conditions, ranging from drought stress to sufficient rainfall, making it a relatively low risk and easy to store crop. As the most important cash crop in the country, it contributes significantly to the income of the farmers.
It is a source of livelihood for nearly 43 percent of all farmers in the country, the majority of whom are poor small farmers. Increasing teff production may seem like the most feasible solution for getting farmers out of poverty and ensuring food security, but it includes several challenges we are exploring in our new book, The Economics of Teff: Exploring Ethiopia's largest cash crop.
In our comprehensive assessment of the teff value chain, we have established that the production and marketing of the crop has various challenges, including the application of modern technologies; seeds and fertilizer distribution system; labor management and mechanization; and hardware stores. Also known as the orphan crop because of the relatively small attention it receives from the Ethiopian government, achieving the full potential of teff for contributing to the economic growth and food security of Ethiopia requires a multifaceted approach and multi-stakeholder participation.
One of the biggest challenges in increasing teff production is that the crop produces low yields, which discourages confidence in a rapidly growing Ethiopian population. Low productivity also means that calorie output per hectare is limited compared to other crops, and given the scarcity of land in the country, this is a significant constraint for the expansion of teff.
The expansion at the expense of other crops with a higher yield, such as corn, wheat, barley and sorghum, would be a major challenge for achieving food security, especially for poor families who can not afford to grow or buy this crop.
Meeting these challenges and increasing the productivity of the teff requires a multiple approach, starting with strengthening agricultural research and expansion. Higher investments in research will improve the degree of acceptance of high-performing resilient seed strains, which are likely to generate large payouts. Improved monitoring and evaluation of the acceptance of modern technologies can help refine technologies, expansion packages and messages – which in turn can lead to successful upscaling.
Combining improved agricultural inputs with access to good and inclusive distribution systems for seeds or fertilizers will further promote adoption rates. In view of rising labor costs, more investments are needed in easily available, affordable and sturdy multifunctional mechanized planters and harvesters; and their spare parts. In addition, storage and processing technologies need to be upgraded to reduce losses and reduce teff delivery over the years.
However, all of these initiatives fail if they are not accompanied by sustained efforts to expand domestic and international markets. On the domestic side, the changing socio-economic profile of urbanized and well-to-do Ethiopians will generate demand for high quality teff flour and processed teff products, which in turn require policies that support a modern shopping environment.
Worldwide, the increasing interest in gluten-free food products can lead to a strong increase in the international demand for teff, creating a chance for growth. But for Ethiopia to benefit from such growth, it must build reliable and sustainable supply chains that can deliver quality products.
Even if the international hype and demand surrounding teff builds up, an overarching concern remains: can an Ethiopian farmer profit from worldwide export markets without jeopardizing domestic consumption? For about 10 years Ethiopia had banned exports of untreated teff grain to isolate domestic prices against global price volatility. Rapid growth in supply for the export market can be supported in situations where considerations of domestic consumption are limited and agronomic and climatic conditions allow higher yields.
Teff can develop just as well as the crown on Ethiopia, but realizing its full potential requires leadership from the public sector, investment and a solid private sector, supported by more active public policies and public-private partnerships.
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 of IFPRI.
* All opinions in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.