Teffa – ‘its lost’ or perhaps its not …

The AKLDPs first blog highlighted the unintended finding of an AKLDP bio-fertilizers assessment on the yields of faba beans, chickpeas and follow-on cereal crops  AKLDP Inoculants brief Feb 2016 Shalo Wakeyo, a farmer from Sagure-Mole kebele, Arsi Zone, carried out a field trial to establish ‘once and for all’ the respective post harvest losses from traditional and mechanized wheat harvesting technologies. He found that losses associated with traditional harvesting were 20% higher than with a contracted combine harvester. It would appear other farmers have arrived at the same conclusion, as combine harvesters dominate wheat harvest operations in Ethiopia’s central wheat belt.

The Amharic term for post-harvest losses is teffa which literally means ‘it is lost’. Folklore suggests Ethiopia’s indigenous cereal, teff – Eragrostis tef[i] is so named because generations of rural Ethiopians have talked of teffa,it is lost’ as teff’s tiny seed size makes it almost impossible to recover when it spills. This second blog therefore continues the theme of post-harvest losses or teffa, but with a shift in focus from wheat to teff.

Teff has been grown in the Ethiopian highlands for 6,000 years with some of the first plantings thought to have been in the area around Axum, which is also home to Ethiopia’s iconic obelisks. After harvesting teff is pounded into a flour that, when mixed with water, is fermented for several days to make the sour staple flatbread known in Amharic as injera. Health-conscious Westerners have come to recognize teff’s benefits – high in fibre, calcium, iron and protein, low glycemic index and ‘gluten-free’ – with the result that global interest in teff has sky-rocketed. Once indigenous to Ethiopia, teff is now widely grown in Australia, Canada, India, USA and Spain both as fodder and as a grain crop. In Africa, teff is grown in Kenya and Uganda and increasingly in southern Africa.

In order to learn more about teff growing in other countries in Africa, the AKLDP contacted Peter Hurrell, a commercial arable farmer in Zambia. Peter first grew teff in 2015, planting 16 hectares. He offered the AKLDP the following details of his first year’s experience:

  • Planting date: although typically planted in the southern hemisphere autumn months of February/ March, Peter planted the 16 ha field on the 25th January 2015. The teff germinated on rainfall and was rainfed throughout the growing season;
  • Seed-bed preparation: tractor-drawn tined discs[ii] were used to produce a shallow tilth/ seed bed that achieved good germination and crop establishment;
  • Fertilizer: a compound fertilizer was applied before planting at a rate of 200kg/ha. These rates are low compared to other cereals, with more potash and phosphate than nitrogen as too much nitrogen results in crop lodging[iii];
  • Planting: the teff seed was broadcast/spread using a small, tractor-mounted, spinner. The seed rate was 7kgs/ ha which is rather less than the 10-15 kg recommended by the agricultural extension advice in Ethiopia. The field was rolled – with a Cambridge roller – to ensure good seed-soil contact, retain soil moisture and ensure there are no stones or roots that would cause difficulty at harvest time;
  • Crop protection: the crop was sprayed with standard herbicide at the 3-4 leaf stage to control weeds and a single, fungal spray for control of Septoria leaf blotch. Levels of thrips, aphids and caterpillar were also monitored and insecticides would have been applied had infestations threatened to impact on production significantly. This however did not happen;
  • Harvesting: a Case Axial Flow 5130 combine harvester was ‘set according to manufacturer’s recommendations in the operators manual including a very slow fan speed.’ Because of lodging[iv] – caused by 200 mm of localized rainfall in April when the crop was fully mature – the harvesting took 4 days and was ‘slow going;
  • Cleaning: the crop was ‘very dirty’ and needed to be pre-cleaned and cleaned again in a fine seed cleaner.

Peter reported that he harvested 900kg/ ha. He also reported that other farmers in the area with comparable teff crops at the mature crop stage averaged 1.7 mt/ ha[v] as they were untroubled by the localized storm. Peter therefore estimated he had lost 800kg/ha or a staggering 47% of the potential yield, as a result of action of the rain, the lodging and losses during harvesting. The crop was sold at US$ 800/ mt which, based on AKLDP food price briefs, https://agri-learning-ethiopia.org/resources/ethiopia-food-price-briefs/ was US$550/ mt or 40% cheaper than nominal prices in Ethiopia at the time. The teff straw was used for animal feed. Despite the losses, Peter confirmed ‘I didn’t actually lose money I just didn’t return a profit’. He went on to say, ‘as I’m achieving high yields in soya, maize and wheat and with my irrigation tied-up in a crop of winter wheat, it isn’t really worth the hassle of growing teff.’

While an information exchange of this type inevitably has its limitations, Peter’s engagement with the AKLDP does offer interesting highlights on the following:

  • Yields, risk and climate change: despite high levels of mechanization Peter estimated his first yields were reduced by 47% the result of unseasonal rain, lodging and associated harvesting challenges. The yields were not dissimilar to yields recorded by the National Drought Risk Management Commission in Ethiopia during the 2015-2016 El Niño drought[vi]. Year-by-year, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa face a range of weather-based hazards – unseasonal rain and drought – pests and diseases and fluctuating farm gate prices that threaten not only yields but also profits and livelihoods. As it seems certain that climate change will continue to make cereal production more risky, thought will need to be given to helping farmers reduce risk in order that they have the capacities and resilience to produce healthy productive crops in good years;
  • The globalization and branding of teff: once indigenous to the highlands of Ethiopia, the information exchange confirms that teff is now a global commodity and can be traded almost anywhere in the world. With Ethiopia’s long and distinguished history of growing and safe-guarding teff however, it is perhaps not surprising the Agriculture Transformation Agency (ATA) is promoting ‘Ethiopian ’ It is hoped Ethiopian teff will eventually command higher prices in the same way as Ethiopian coffee and other globally recognized food brands;
  • Commercial and mechanized teff production systems: in stark contrast to Ethiopia, teff grown in other parts of the world is typically grown on commercial, highly mechanized farms. It is interesting to note therefore that on these commercial enterprises teff is not planted in lines as is the recommended practice for Ethiopia smallholders with limited access to mechanization, but rather that teff is broadcast by precision planters, with associated seed rate reductions. Teff is also protected by state-of-the-art herbicides and combines replace traditional manual harvesting techniques;
  • Prices: the sale price of teff in Zambia in 2015 was 40% lower than the nominal price in Ethiopia at the time. A combination of rising demand for teff amongst Ethiopia’s rapidly expanding urban population and the poor 2015 autumn meher harvest[vii] has resulted in a steady rise in teff prices since March 2014. Teff prices in April 2015 were therefore 48% higher than nominal wheat prices in Addis Ababa and staggering 75% above wheat import parity prices.

Looking to the future, it will be necessary for Ethiopian farmers to continue to adapt and change as generations of their forefathers did before them. In contrast however to their forefathers, it will be necessary not only to adapt to local agro-ecological conditions and farm-level technology but also to global markets and commodity prices. The changing status of global agriculture would seem to confirm the importance of branding and promoting Ethiopian teff in order to command premium prices in the future. This and of course, encouraging young Ethiopians to value their remarkable history of teff and to appreciate its health values.

f you’d like to respond to this blog, please email: Dr. Amdissa Teshome Amdissa.Teshome@tufts.edu


[i] For those who are unfamiliar with the crop it is rather similar to millet, though the red and white grains are tiny in comparison.

[ii] A disc and soil press/ Cambridge roller can be used in combination to ensure all stones are buried and therefore damage to the combine harvester avoided as the combine cutter bar is inevitably very low to the ground.

[iii] Recommended rates are 30-40 kgs nitrogen, 40 kgs phosphate, 80 kgs potassium and 40 kgs sulphur

[iv] Lodging is a term used to describe regions of cereal fields (or sometimes whole fields) where the crop stems collapse under the weight of the seed head and the crop is flat on the ground.

[v] Ethiopia’s Central Statistics Agency reported average yields in Ethiopia of 1.4mt/ ha in 2014 http://addisfortune.net/articles/government-to-resume-teff-exports-with-180000ql-by-next-fiscal-year/

[vi] Humanitarian Requirements Document (HRD). Mid-Year Review 2015, Joint Government and Humanitarian Partners’

Document, August 2015, Addis Ababa.

[vii] The result of the 2015-2016 El Niño