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.