Ethiopia’s battle for control over its genetic resources

Ethiopia is a nation famed for its incredibly successful runners, but it’s also thought to be where one of the world’s oldest grains was domesticated, between 3000 and 6000 years ago. Teff, a small grain comparable to millet or quinoa, is used to make injera, a soft flatbread made from fermented batter. Teff makes up approximately 60% of most Ethiopians’ daily protein intake. Its straw is widely used as fodder for livestock.

As a grain relatively untouched by modern agricultural research and development, teff remains a fairly robust and adaptable crop, but one with a lower yield than lots of popular alternative crops, and one that requires more labour to cultivate. The average yield per hectare of teff is around 1.4 tonnes, while modern varieties of wheat produce 3.2 tonnes.

Teff. Credit: Rasbak 15:19, 5 August 2007 (UTC) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Demand for teff from outside the horn of Africa is increasing rapidly, as western consumers search for more gluten free grains, and realise teff’s nutritional value.

Patents won’t stick to teff long

In early 2019 Ethiopians had a victory in a long legal battle for the right to sell processed teff goods. In the early 2000s a Dutch agronomist had gained patent rights over teff through a collapsed partnership with the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization, and these patents prevented other companies from selling or making teff flour products in Europe.

The patents claimed that storing teff grains prior to grinding them (in order to improve the flour quality) was a novel idea, despite this being common practice in the Ethiopian agricultural sector for a long time prior. After years of failed negotiations Ethiopia filed a case against the agronomist in 2018, but it was a separate case, with another Dutch company, which finally brought a ruling that the patent was void. However, this ruling applies only in the Netherlands – patents are still in place in the UK, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Austria. Similar legal battles could invalidate these, but the patents expire in 2024, so the Ethiopian government may choose to save money and wait for the remaining patents to expire.

Smallholder farmers in Ethiopia will be paying close attention to this news, since it will open up new markets for teff, changing the value of their crops at home and abroad. Smallholder farming makes up 85% of livelihoods in Ethiopia, and 95% of agricultural production. Many are cautious that the market for teff might follow the market for quinoa between 2005 and 2014, when western demand for quinoa increased dramatically. This was good news for some of the farmers growing quinoa, but priced many Peruvians and Bolivians out of eating their staple crop.

Increasing production with solar powered irrigation

Whatever the future brings, smallholder farmers in Ethiopia are taking the opportunity to increase yields while keeping costs low by irrigating with Futurepump’s solar powered pumps. Much of Ethiopia has plentiful water resources, and solar powered irrigation enables farmers to utilise these resources to increase production without using polluting petrol pumps.

Our distributor in Ethiopia is Solar Development PLC, look out for more from them on our social media in the coming month.