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Back to the Source: Teff

By Emily Ziethen | Fri Sep 23 2016
In January 2014, members of the Impact Angel Network closed an investment in Mama Fresh Injera, a family-owned company that has been in operation since 2003. Mama Fresh is a commercial manufacturer and exporter of fresh-baked injera, spices and other Ethiopian food products.
Mama Fresh works with more than 300 smallholder farmers who grow the teff and spices that the company’s chefs and bakers use in the company’s high-quality products. The company also employs more than 90 hardworking men and women in the kitchens and bakeries of Mama Fresh, the main output being Ethiopia’s famous injera.
Injera is traditionally made from teff; a gluten-free grain that can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient civilizations of Abyssinia in the highlands of Ethiopia. The grain is similar in size to that of a poppy seed and comes in a variety of colors, from white and red to dark brown. It has a very mild, nutty flavor, and it packs a nutrient-rich punch - high in iron, calcium and protein, and has an excellent balance of essential amino acids.
Around 3.78 million metric tons of teff is grown in Ethiopia each year. One hectare yields a little more than 1 metric ton of teff, on average, though agriculture initiatives currently underway in Ethiopia are working to increase yields.*
Teff, though small in size, plays a large role in both the country’s economy and diet. The agriculture sector is the largest employer of Ethiopia’s 90 million plus population, with grain production constituting the primary share. In fact, cereals (teff, wheat, maize, sorghum, etc.) account for roughly 80% of total cultivated land and 60% of rural employment.* And, it is small landholder farmers who produce around 98% of the country’s cereals, with only 2% produced by commercial farms.*
Teff is a versatile grain that can be processed in a variety of ways and is eaten at almost every Ethiopian meal, in the form of injera. Due to its nutritious nature and cultural significance, teff is considered to be one of the country’s most important crops for economic and food security. It is because of this that the country enacted a ban of all teff grain exports in 2006. Teff grain is almost exclusively consumed at the domestic level, and the rest of the world can only legally consume Ethiopian grown teff if it’s a finished product, like Mama Fresh’s world-renowned injera.
To make injera, teff grain must first be separated from the stalk, whether it is by traditional cleaning and sieving methods or automated processes. Once the grain is cleaned, it is then ground into flour and combined with water to make dough. This dough is allowed to ferment for 3 to 4 days, until it reaches a specific pH level and is ready for baking.
Injera is traditionally baked in an oven called a “metad,” which is a flat circular hot plate with a cover. After preparing the hot metad's surface for baking, the Mama Fresh baker then pours the dough in a circular motion, ensuring that it is evenly distributed across the oven’s surface. Each baker has their own technique that they have perfected from years of practice. Injera usually bakes for 3 to 5 minutes and is then taken out by the baker for cooling.
On average, a Mama Fresh baker can bake up to 600 pieces of injera during a shift. Once injera finishes cooling, it is then packed into airtight plastic for shipment to the many countries across the world where Mama Fresh sells its products, including the United States. This unique, spongy, sourdough-like flatbread can be enjoyed at room temperature with meats, sauces and spices, including Mama Fresh's delicious Berbere.
So, the next time you’re at a specialty foods store and spot a package of Mama Fresh injera, you’ll now understand the transformative journey this small grain has taken from the highlands of Ethiopia to the shelf of your supermarket and the lives it has positively impacted along the way.
Renew Capital is an Africa-focused impact investment firm that backs innovative companies with high-growth potential. Renew Capital manages investments made on behalf of the Renew Capital Angels, a global network of angel investors, foundations and family offices who seek financial returns and sustainable social impact. For the latest on investing in Africa, subscribe and follow us at our social links below.

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