Forget SuperFoods, What Africa Needs is a Super Regulatory Regime

It’s easy to despair of trendy-dev “superfood” articles, like this AFP fluff piece on Ethiopia’s “mineral-rich and high protein” staple grain, teff, breathlessly hyped as “the next quinoa.”

Teff is great, of course, but there’s a glaring disconnect between the hype and the reasons you’re not going to find Ethiopian teff in your supermarket shelves any time soon. As the article itself explains, there are just two full-time researchers working on teff in Ethiopia right now, and exports of teff are banned.

It doesn’t matter how many minerals or how much protein is in teff: until you develop some kind of rudimentary in-country biotech capability to create and spread new improved seed varieties, you’re not going to make teff an international success story, and two stiffs working in a lab somewhere just aren’t going to cut it.

But what’s really galling is the export ban. Here we are, 35 years after Robert Bates put the last conceptual nail in the coffin of anti-farmer African policy regimes and they’re still doing it! By banning teff exports, Ethiopia actively redistributes income away from the poorest ethiopians – farmers – and towards people who, though undoubtedly still poor, are comparatively much better off: urban injera buyers.

What has to be grasped is the systemic relationship between these two facts: so long as teff isn’t an export earner, why would you devote scarce biotech expertise to improving it? And so long as teff yields stink, why would you think of exporting it?

In the end, it’s about power. It sure looks like teff farmers just don’t have the political power it would take to demand trade policies that would increase their earnings, or to demand biotech policies that would boost their yields. That’s a hard fact of Ethiopian political economy, and one no donor intervention seems to me likely to change.

4 thoughts on “Forget SuperFoods, What Africa Needs is a Super Regulatory Regime”

  1. I’m all in for opening to global markets and avoiding over-protecting economic policies. Nevertheless, I have also heard a lot about the Quinoa story, in which the grain became too expensive for local population to buy, while production was in some cases seized by big players. According to the story, this resulted in local population not profiting (so much) from the higher prices, and instead having to either pay more for the Quinoa, or relay on cheaper and less healthy products (which could still be more expensive than the Quinoa used to be, since is not produced locally).
    Any thoughts about this? ideas on how to avoid it? articles refuting this narrative?

    1. It’s such an arroz-con-mango of a concern, though, Pablo. If people get pushed off the land, that has extremely little to do with Quinoa and a LOT to do with the fact that they don’t have secure title to land, which again tracks back to political power differentials.

      But in general terms, the whole idea that too-much-demand-for-the-thing-you-sell can be a driver of poverty is absurd, the product of a type of paternalism that imagines smallholders as starting out from a pristine state of noble savagery that can only be debauched by progress. It’s a senseless, insidious, colonial ideology – but also one that’s been around since the 16th century and probably has a good few hundred years left in it.

  2. Long experience with govt bureaucrats and permitting procedures has taught me that when people are invested with a tiny bit of power they tend to misuse it with the flimsiest of excuses as if making life difficult for other justified their authority .They usually become paranoid believing that anything people do which profits them hides some kind of nefarious intent which they must guard against . This kind of attitude is rife all over the globe but it is specially sad when it affects people in places like ethiopia when you are playing with peoples hunger. !!

  3. Lots of products become “too expensive for locals to buy” once they begin to be sold to in the worldwide market.

    Most of the best wine still leaves Chile, and, I think, the best coffee leaves Colombia (and Vietnam.)

    But the revenue incoming allows for self-directed modernization in other areas, and, properly distributed, allows the former consumers of the product, say quinoa, to diversify their diet.

    Banning an export, except as a short-term anti-famine measure, will almost certainly increase poverty overall, in both medium and long terms.

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