World, Africa

Ancient grain a remedy for food insecurity in E. Africa?

Experts call for more scientific research on ancient grain to find solution to food insecurity in Horn of Africa

Addis Getachew Tadesse   | 22.05.2019
Ancient grain a remedy for food insecurity in E. Africa? file photo

ADDIS ABABA – Ethiopia

It is a tiny seed varying in color from deep reddish brown to amber, silvery and white -- the ancient Ethiopian grain known as "Teff".

Currently a staple for tens of millions of people in Ethiopia and gaining increasing popularity worldwide for being a "superfood", Teff, according to experts in the field, holds the potential to substantially boost food security in the country and beyond.

Ancient origin

Known by its scientific name as Eragrostis, Teff (a.k.a Lovegrass) is native to the Horn of Africa region notably what is today Ethiopia and Eritrea, where people have been cultivating it for its edible seeds for some 4,000 years.

The name of the ancient grain originates from the Amharic word "teffa" which means "lost", due to the amazingly small size of the grain (seed has 1/32 parts of an inch in diameter).

"Teff has endured the test of time due to its incredible resistance to changes in weather and plant diseases, traits most grass species share. In terms of adaptability to environmental factors, no plant producing cereal equals it," Ethiopian Agronomist Dereje Mekonnen said.

Dereje marvels at not only the circumstances in which people had first come to know Teff as an edible grain, but also how the grains are made into food in one of the finest methods of baking to produce "Injera" -- a sourdough flatbread baked from Teff flour, which is first made into paste, and with an application of the proper amount of yeast it ferments and swell up before it is thinned down with water and baked.

According to Dereje, there has been no research to find out exactly when in history the people in this part of the world began turning Teff into Injera. But there are lots of literature suggesting Injera in the very form we know it today became the main part of Ethiopia’s cuisine. Injera is eaten with a wide range of cooked, roasted, and stewed or sautéed dishes -- meats, vegetables and grains. The Injera, which is circular, is rolled out over a tray and sauces are ladled out upon it. You tear it up using your hand, scoop the sauces with it… Yummy!

Research

In Ethiopia research on Teff began in the 1940s but it was not until the 1970s that findings were released.

Dr. Kebebew Assefa is a lead researcher with the National Teff Research Program at the Debrezeit Agricultural Research Center, which is one of the centers operating under the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research.

"Most of our research on Teff were focused on productivity and good results had come out at various times over the decades," he said.

"Yield per hectare has only been 7 to 8 quintals when research had begun. Today, yield increased many folds and farmers get up to 17 quintals per hectare, most of which they sell for cash," he said.

One quintal is equal to one hundred kilograms.

Dr. Kebebew cited a Central Statistical Authority estimate that shows that there has been a 0.6% annual increase in the productivity of Teff.

Through research 42 improved varieties have come out of which 24 were the result of research conducted by the Debrezeit Research Center.

"We have been able to produce such high yield varieties as Quncho, Bozet, Korra and Dagim," Dr. Kebebew said.

For him, the attention given to the research and finances allocated to it, and the development of Teff has never been adequate.

"Resources for this aspect have always been negligible. Teff accounts for a $4 billion business in Ethiopia and we estimate that it provides staple food for about 70 million of Ethiopia's more than 100 million population.

"Of the total amount circulated across the Teff value chain -- from farm to plate -- only 1% goes to research," he said, adding his research center gets only 1.7 million Ethiopian Birr (nearly $60,000) annually for its research activities.

Both Dereje and Dr. Kebebew agree that research on Teff should be intensified as the tiny grain holds great potential in store to provide a solution to food insecurity in the Horn of Africa region -- a region that is hit by severe droughts.

According to Dr. Kebebew, Teff grows at areas whose altitude varies from sea level to 3,000 kilometers above sea level.

"It is a unique plant that grows resisting both 'too much moisture' in the soil and 'too little moisture.'"

"In terms of water consumption, Teff can grow with little water. It only takes for a teff kernel to germinate to grow and mature. Once it germinates it often grows and bear seeds," Dr. Kebebew said.

When it comes to nutritional value, Dereje adds that Teff is today recognized as a superfood even in the U.S. and European markets.

"It has been found that Teff is non-gluttonous, is rich in calcium and protein and can ward off the craving for more food once eaten in any time of day.”

All these traits provide enough reason for Ethiopia and its development partners to focus more on the research and development towards bridging the yawning gap of food insecurity with this superfood.

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