Marketing director of Teff Growers South Africa, Charles Wessels, first started growing teff as hay for his polo horses back in 2009, when someone suggested that the grain traditionally eaten in Africa might be worth keeping too.
Now, with the help of the Swiss Import Promotion Programme (SIPPO), the company is hoping to export the tiny iron-rich grain to Europe.
Teff has been eaten in Africa for thousands of year as a seed and flour.
In the world’s largest producing country, Ethiopia, it is still one of the most important crops for farm income and food security, generating almost $500m (€469.77m) income per year for 6.3 million farm households in 2012.
Elsewhere the gluten-free grain found fame only recently, attracting media attention as ‘the next big grain’ following hype around chia and quinoa. Yet
the company is treading carefully in these fashionable footsteps.
“I don’t want to be labelled by that. Yes, there are lessons to be learnt, and that’s why we are trying to not produce a lot more than the market is asking for every year,” grain sourcing manager Hannes Maartenstold us at the industry event Health ingredients Europe (HiE) this week, which the company attended with SIPPO.
“I think quinoa had a very large boom and everybody jumped on this quinoa and then it dropped tremendously, it reached a plateau.
“And there was a detrimental effect on the supply chain down to the producers and everybody had a shock because there was this huge amount and there was a little bit of resistance because the price went up tremendously [in the boom] and then it dropped again to a more reasonable level.”
Instead the company is keen to take a more conservative approach.
“Sustainability is paramount. We don’t want to have a large spike, just take it as it comes.”
Nevertheless the company has been doubling its harvest each year, with 70-100 growers cultivating about 4-5,000 tonnes from 15,000 acres of land this year in the South African area of Bloemfontein.
Teff Growers only mills the product into flour, but Maartens said it had potential in grain, popped or milled form in various products form bakery, cereals and sports nutrition.
The company is also on the look out to sell the 50,000 annual tonnage of forage from the crop as animal feed, which Maartens said was in particular export demand because of recent droughts.
The nutritional information provided by the company and quoted in the original version of this article has now been updated.