Exploring Injera & Teff

By Zade Goertzel. Copyright 2017 Zade Goertzel. All rights reserved.

Ethiopia is currently populated with over 90 million people (Reda, 2015) and is one of humanity’s countries of origin [1]. Accordingly, it has many of its own endemic species and it is the origin of domesticated cattle, teff, dagusa, enset, coffee, khat, and gesho. Ethiopia is located near the Red Sea. In fact, until Eritrea seceded in the late 20th century, it was connected to the Red Sea. Along the Red Sea there is a rift which goes through the Eritrean coast, dividing the Ethiopian highlands into two (Henze, 2000). The Rift valley has different areas of grasslands, valleys, hills, swamps, woodland, and forests. The dominant Ethiopian and Eritrean states are and mostly have been throughout human history, located (Henze, 2000) in the highlands. The country as a whole ranges from below sea level to approximately 4,600 meters (UN, 2006). Teff was domesticated in the Northern highlands, and to this day it serves as a major staple crop for Ethiopians, especially for northern highlanders, in the form of injera; a spongey, sourdough flatbread made out of teff and water. It is used as the utensil for eating other foods called wot, they are made of vegetables, meats, and pulses. Although the time of origin for injera is unclear, tales told of it go back to 100 BCE (Getachew, 1962).

Around the time of highland state formation, teff was the most prominent crop in the area (McCann, 1995). The cultivation of teff (Eragrostis abyssinica or Eragrostis tef.) has likely been practiced in Ethiopian highlands for approximately 7000 years, and subsequently highland culture and traditions have strong ties to it (McCann, 1995)(Reda, 2015). Domesticated teff was likely selected for increased branching and a higher percentage of seeds under minimal tillage, which is unlike some other cereals which were selected for large seed size and intensified tillage (EOL, 2016). This may be related to why teff has one of the smallest grain sizes and each plant holds 1000 to 10,000 seeds (Refera, 2001).

Teff was a symbol of elite status and “strong preferences for cereal products as payment provided an indirect pressure for farmers to convert” to producing teff (McCann, 1995). Teff has become an important crop being cultivated in 10 of 18 different agricultural zones, and 30 of 83 districts of Ethiopia due to its high adaptability to various growing conditions (Reda, 2015). It grows best at 1700-2100 meters in elevation, but it can be grown above 3000 meters, and has been considered one of the quickest growing crops, for producing usable hay in 6-8 weeks after sowing and ripe seeds in only 8-12 weeks (Burtt-Davy, 1916)(Reda, 2015)(McCann, 1995). The crop can be harvested multiple times in one growing season, and its adaptability is largely due to its ability to withstand both an excess of moisture and a lack of moisture; it can both grow in areas that experience waterlogging and in dry and sandy regions, where many other grasses would not be productive (Reda, 2015)(Burtt-Davy, 1916). In some areas where “farmers face a complete crop failure due to moisture stress, teff is their choice in order to obtain a harvest” (Refera, 2001). Compared to other cereals in the same landscape of Ethiopia, teff has the longest storage life, the best straw for cattle digestion, and the best straw for building houses (McCann, 1995). It can also be used for weaving baskets and other sorts of containers, medical use[2], pasturage, and green manuring (Refera, 2001)(Aynelam, 2016)(McCann, 1995)(Burtt-Davy, 1916).

The ox-plow is a significant actor in the spread of teff agriculture and the food consumption that follows its production. Ox-plow agriculture begun among the same Cushtic speaking farmers who domesticated the local grasses such as teff, and since then, the ox-plow has spread throughout the country more stably and permanently than the spread of state or religion (McCann, 1995).

Elevation map of modern-day Ethiopia. The highest elevations and highlands are mostly located in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromiya. (UN, 2006)

Farmers who own oxen are significantly more likely to grow teff than those who either rent or do not use ox-plows, because growing teff requires particularly intensive tillage relative to many other cereals (Gebremedhin, 2007)(McCann, 1995). It requires significant seedbed preparation and weeding, and five to eight passes with an ox-plow (McCann, 1995). Remaining clumps of soil can then be broken down with goats or sheep used “repeatedly across the surface to break down clods and compact the soil before a final seed covering pass” (McCann, 1995). However, judging by teff’s popularity and prestige as a staple crop, it appears that teff’s adaptability, other crop perks, and ability to form into preferred food has outweighed the intense tillage that it requires.

Ethiopian provinces in 1935, including Kaffa and Hararghe (Wikipedia, 2017)

Teff “is the highest prestige cereal food across the ox-plow landscape”, it got more attention from visiting travelers and teff “achieved pride of place across elite diets in the highlands” (McCann, 1995). Over time, the popularity of teff as a major part of cuisine has spread throughout the country, beyond the northern highlands. By the 1800s it became common in areas such as Kaffa, Gera, and Hararge (McCann, 1995). By the 1900s ox-plow agriculture even spread to the area around Hargeisa (modern-day Somalia), and when Oromo [3] who migrated to the highlands of Wallo, Tigray, northern Shawa, and the Lake Tana basin, they shifted from pastoralism to plow agriculture, which likely lead to teff cultivation. The kingdom of Kaffa which shifted to plow agriculture in the 1600s shifted because the royal court preferred teff and other cereals over other crops (McCann, 1995). Unlike agricultural production for rural diets, food for royal banquets “and hospitality required huge amounts of livestock and cereals, especially teff” (McCann, 1995). With tens of millions of livestock, teff has been very important as a means of animal feed, and as of the late 1980s there came a market for selling teff straw to a growing cattle fattening industry (Refera, 2001)(McCann, 1995). There was however a decline in teff production from 1961-1984, at this time barley and maize were rising in production. Since then the productivity has once again increased and the area of land used to grow teff has expanded (Reda, 2015). By 2015 annual teff production had been “increasing year after year on average by about 10%” (Reda, 2015). Despite the fact that there has historically been a strong royal preference and influence on agriculture, the government did not take interest in the actual process of food production until after World War II (McCann, 1995). Currently there has been more government attention on agriculture in order to develop the economy and avoid famine.

To this day, Ethiopia has an agriculturally based economy. Cereal crop production, which is mostly subsistence agriculture, constitutes the employment opportunity for 60% of the rural poor, and 80% of total arable land coverage (Reda, 2015). As of 2015, only 2% of cereals were produced by state or commercial farms. This subsistence agriculture is similar to that which has been practiced for thousands of years in Ethiopia (McCann, 1995). The farming of teff often involves intercropping, compost, and crop rotation, and it does not often use artificial fertilizers or pesticides (Reda, 2015) (Bayecha, 2015) (Berhane, 2015) (McCann, 1995). Agroecology is often thought of as an important component of sustainable agriculture (Gleissman, 2011), and the aforementioned forms of Ethiopian subsistence agriculture do not perfectly model agroecological farming systems, but it is important to recognize that despite the incorporation of sustainable practices and the exclusion of clearly unsustainable practices associated with industrial agriculture, anthropogenic land degradation is a huge and increasing problem in Ethiopia (Henze, 2000).

Ethiopia’s government “has adopted commercialization of subsistence agriculture”(Gebremedhin, 2007) as a development strategy for the country, because subsistence agriculture “is not a viable activity to ensure sustainable household food security and welfare”(Pingali, 1997). Around 1995, “…teff’s high price and prestige … made it the only crop amenable to ox-plow farm commercialization and specialization” (McCann, 1995). Teff had “…never dominated either farm diets or hectarage” (McCann, 1995), barley, sorghum, and maize had higher rates of production (McCann, 1995). However in 2016, teff supported “more than 70-75% of Ethiopia’s population” as a staple and co-staple crop (Aynalem, 2016). Aside from limited land which leads to intensive instead of primitive subsistence agriculture, there may be other specific factors contributing to why subsistence agriculture has become unsustainable, some of which might relate to the commercialization of teff (Waceke et al., 2007). In one study “farmers who did not own land but have leased-in plots, preferred to practice the conventional way of production using inorganic fertilizer rather than improving the productivity of soil … as they might not use the land permanently” (Berhane, 2015).

In the same study, farmers who farmed on plots away from their home used chemical fertilizers in order to avoid transporting manure and compost (Berhane, 2015). These examples show that land leasing and distance instead of generational ownership of land around the same area as their home can cause farmers to care less about their soil fertility and have a long-term negative affect on the land. This is because in cases such as leasing land, farmers will likely be more concerned about short-term profit than by long-term sustainability and profit. The same phenomena has been apparent in Ada as a result of teff commercialization. Many landowners “forbade the cultivation of sorghum altogether, since it decreased the amount of land planted in teff” (McCann, 1995). In general ox-plow areas have shown a pattern of concentration in teff cultivation leading to a decline of rotation, a decrease of variety of crops planted, and a loss of fallow pasture (McCann, 1995). Fertilizer is also often not used at all, and when it is, it is often artificial fertilizer (Reda, 2015). This repetitive tillage, limited application of manure, and resulting erosion removing top soil has degraded the land (Reda, 2015). These relatively recent land use patterns could be a significant part of what is leading to widespread land degradation, especially if the commercialization of wheat and rice, which are also becoming market oriented crops, (Gebremedhin, 2007) leads to their agroecological environments to be altered in the same way as teff has been.

Domesticated teff has only been introduced to countries other than Ethiopia and Eritrea starting in 1866 (Reda, 2015). Previously there had been a lack of consumer interest in teff because there was a lack of familiarity with it (Reda, 2015). A large amount of teff was exported from Ethiopia in 1995-97, 2001, and 2005, which is likely linked to the commercialization of teff that began around the same time. However, export declined in 2006 due to an excessive rise in the price of teff in Ethiopia, turning teff into a luxury for Ethiopians (Reda, 2015). It has recently be come a more sought after crop internationally because of its health benefits, especially for the gluten-free market (Reda, 2015). It is mainly exported to Southwest Asia, Europe, and North America; the primary continents that Ethiopians emigrate to (unicef, 2013). In the United States, teff is most popular for grazing hay as well as for Ethiopian Americans (Reda, 2015).

Compared to other grains, teff is known for having a particularly high mineral content, especially in regard to zinc, copper, manganese, and iron (Eckhoff et al., 1997). And when teff is made into injera, the teff is fermented, which can improve the availability of proteins and amino acids (Reda, 2015). The processing of teff and turning it into injera begins with the stage of cutting the plant. After this, the harvested teff is usually bundled and carried to a threshing ground. Threshing, which is mostly done by men, is done by tying livestock’s mouths shut and having the animals trample the bundles of teff until their tops are broken. After this the animals are forced to leave and any straw with grain remaining on it is beaten with a stick in order to separate it from its seeds.

Threshing can be a festive event where local farmers gather and have beer and injera or roasted grains (Refera, 2001). Sometimes threshing machines are used, but their sieves are generally made for larger grains, so teff seeds will escape with the chaffs. Separating the grain from the chaff is usually done by women. It is normally done via fanning and winnowing (Refera, 2001). Once processed teff is packaged in traditional containers or in plastic, it can be stored for a minimum of three years (Eckhoff et al., 1997) and it is not often attacked by pests, so it does not need any pest control chemicals which means traditional storage methods are effective (Refera, 2001). Teff suffers from fewer diseases and pests than other cereal crops in Ethiopia (Eckhoff et al., 1997)(Refera, 2001). Twenty-two fungi and 3 pathogenic nematodes had been identified on teff as of 1997 (Eckhoff et al., 1997).

To make injera, the grain needs to be sifted from dirt, soaked, and pounded to remove the seed coats. The seeds then need to be dried in the sun and ground into flour using an apparatus made of two stones. This post-harvest processing by women and by hand, however some people who live near towns will use a village gritsmill. These are either diesel or electric powered (Refera, 2001). Once this is done, the teff flour is mixed with water and left to ferment. As is the case for other Ethiopian foods, specific proportions vary based on different womens’ experiences making injera (Mesfin, 2006). The length of fermentation also varies depending on climate and altitude, but, generally, if fermented for longer than 36 hours the nutritive value decreases (Refera, 2001). If the climate is hot, then sometimes injera can be baked in the same day that fermentation is started (Mesfin, 2006)(Refera, 2001).

After fermentation, a yellowish liquid called ersho, is poured off of the top and used to ferment the next batch of injera. Different studies have found different yeasts in injera, one found that Candida guilliermondii was the primary agent in the fermentation of injera, and that it is naturally occurring in teff seeds. However, other studies have found 22 yeasts during the time of peak fermentation and did not find Candida guillermondii to be responsible for the dough’s fermentation. After pouring away the ersho, a portion of the fermented dough is mixed with three parts of water and boiled. The boiled mixture is mixed back into the rest of the fermented dough, and then it is poured spiraling from the edge to the middle of a mitad. Once holes begin to form, the lid is placed over the injera and the complete injera is removed from the pan. Once injera is complete it is often placed in a mesob, which is made of grass stems, for storage or for consumption (Refera, 2001).

A picture of injera with wot being served on a mesob. (Gracing on the cake, 2013)

Other types of “injera” exist as well, such as Aflagna, Chumbo, Bekuo, hongochy, annababaro, and bedena balla, but the kind already described is the most common and well known type. Chumbo is a thicker type of injera; it is thick at the edges, thinner in the middle and less fermented than regular injera. The metad it is cooked in is smaller and concave and it must be cooked for longer than injera (Refera, 2001). Annabababaro is essentially a “double-injera”; it is made by placing one complete injera over an injera while it is in the process of being cooked. Bedena Balla is a 4-6cm thick injera which is cooked with an array of spices inside of it, including fresh onion and garlic. It is cooked in the metad on top of banana leaves (Refera, 2001). Some of these thicker types of injera are made when there are particularly many people who need to be fed (Refera, 2001).

Ethiopia, as of 2013, met “96% of its energy needs from bio-mass and [the] majority of this energy goes entirely to injera baking” (Tesfay et al., 2013). Cooking injera requires 180-220 degrees celsius to cook well, for the consumption of approximately two injera a day per person, this uses a lot of bio-mass fuel (Refera, 2001)(Tesfay et al., 2013). Not only is this a problem in terms of deforestation for biomass fuel, but it also has deathly affects on those regularly exposed to its soot and smoke (Tesfay et al., 2013).

Grains other than teff, such as barley, wheat, rice, sorghum, and millet, can also be used for injera, however teff is preferred for the highest injera quality (EIAD, 2014). Teff used for injera can be white, red, or mixed, but white teff is the widely preferred type (McCann, 1995)(Refera, 2001). Because of this, white teff sells for more and farmers of it will often sell the white teff and consume the red teff that they grow (Refera, 2001). Sorghum is considered the “second most important crop for injera quality next to teff” (EIAR, 2014). It is a very stable crop which can be grown at lower altitudes than teff, and which can withstand drought and high temperatures (McCann, 1995)(EIAD, 2014). Sorghum, at least as of 2004, was less expensive than teff and therefore there has been interest in improving the quality of sorghum injera (Yetneberk et al., 2004). Regardless, injera is generally supposed to be made of teff, and so long as teff produces the highest quality of injera, it is likely to remain the crop preferred and used for it. In countries neighboring Ethiopia, there are foods similar to injera, but made slightly differently and with different grains, such as Canjeero, a staple food of Djbouti and Somalia, or South Sudan’s Kisra. Both are fermented like injera; canjeero [] is made of flours such as sorghum, corn, and wheat, but unlike injera it is primarily a breakfast food (Somali Kitchen, 2017). Kisra is generally made of sorghum or wheat, and when made from sorghum may be very similar to sorghum injera (Keith, 1995).

While slavery seems to be at the foundation for most early civilizations, especially in terms of laborious agricultural work (Scott, 2017), it seems that slave labor has not historically been a significant contributor to teff production. Aside from the fact that Ethiopia was the fourth largest source for world slave trade from 1400 to 1900 (William, 2014) until slavery was made illegal in the early 20th century (Henze, 2000), slaves were an important component to most Ethiopian households. Slaves were often “regarded as members of their owners’ family” and were primarily attained through warfare, slave raids or descent from previous generations of slaves (Ayale, 2011). Slaves mainly helped with household labor and protection (Ayale, 2011), it is only clear that they contributed significantly to agriculture in “the centralized Oromo states of Gibe valleys and Dideasa”, as well as in southern states such as the Gojab and Omo river basins (Clarence-Smith, 1989). In these areas, agricultural work was mainly done by slaves, but it is not clear whether this was true in northern highlands where the production of injera and teff has been more prominent.

The term “Ethiopian food” almost always refers to injera with wot, not to any different food from an area which injera has not spread to as cuisine. Injera and types of wot do vary widely from place to place within Ethiopia and Eritrea, but despite the fact that there is a moderate portion of the population who do not eat injera as a staple or co-staple food, injera appears to have become the main food that is widespread throughout Ethiopia and which holds the status of “Ethiopian” food, rather than a specific regional food. It is possible that one of the main reasons injera has managed to become what “Ethiopian food” is, is that it originated in the area of the country that has had the most political influence on the rest of the country. But assuming only that would be overlooking the adaptability and other benefits of teff, as well as whatever the influence was that spread ox-plow agriculture, as it appears to not have only spread via the state.


[1] Editor’s note: https://answersingenesis.org/genesis/garden-of-eden/where-was-the-garden-of-eden-located/

[2] Used to make Atimite, especially for child birth and fractured bones (Aynelam, 2016).

[3] Oromo is an Ethiopian ethnicity, primarily located in the Oromo region of Ethiopia, which is south of Amhara and Tigray; the politically dominant regions centered around the northern highlands.

[4] Also known as anjero, it is similar to Yemen and Israel’s lahooh and Morocco’s baghrir. (http://www.somalikitchen.com/anjero-sourdough-pancakes.html/)


1. “Anjero (Sourdough Pancakes) | The Somali Kitchen.” n.d. Accessed December 17, 2017. http://www.somalikitchen.com/anjero-sourdough-pancakes.html

2. “BLONK Quality Ingredients.” n.d. Accessed October 4, 2017. http://www.teff-

3. Clarence-Smith, W. G. 1989. The Economics of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade in the
Nineteenth Century. Psychology Press.

4. Easterly, William. 2014. The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Basic Books.

5. G.F. Stallknecht, Kenneth M. Gilbertson, and J.L. Eckhoff. n.d. “Teff: Food Crop for
Humans and Animals.” Purdue Agriculture. Accessed October 4, 2017. https://

6. Ghassan Hage. n.d. Lecture on Different Forms of Racism.

7. Gliessman, Stephen R. 2014. Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, Third Edition. 3 edition. CRC Press.

8. 2013. “Mesob.” Gracingonthecake (blog). March 12, 2013. https://

9. J. W. Waceke, and J. W. Kimenju. 2007. “Intensive Subsistence Agriculture: Impacts,
Challenges and Possible Interventions.” Global Science Books, Dynamic Soil, Dynamic

10. James C. Scott. 2017. “Population Control: Bondage and War.” In Against The Grain. Yale University Press.

11. Kiple, and Orenelas. n.d. “Determining What Our Ancestors Ate.” In Dietary Reconstruction and Nutritional Assessment of Past Peoples.

12. McCann, James C. 1995. People of the Plow: An Agricultural History of Ethiopia,
1800-1990. University of Wisconsin Press.

13. Mengesha, Melak H. 1966. “Chemical Composition of Teff (Eragrostis Tef) Compared with That of Wheat, Barley and Grain Sorghum.” Economic Botany 20 (3):268–73. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02904277

14. Mesfin, Daniel J. 2006. Exotic Ethiopian Cooking: Society, Culture, Hospitality &
Traditions. Falls Church, VA: Ethiopian Cookbook Enterprises.

15. Steinkraus, Keith. 1995. Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded. CRC Press.

16. Stewart, Robert B., and Asnake Getachew. 1962. “Investigations of the Nature of Injera.” Economic Botany 16 (2):127–30. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02985300

17. “Teff – Eragrostis Tef – Overview.” n.d. Encyclopedia of Life. Accessed October 4, 2017. http://eol.org/pages/1114367/overview

18. Tesfay, Asfafaw Haileselassie, Mulu Bayray Kahsay, and Ole Jørgen Nydal. 2014. “Design and Development of Solar Thermal Injera Baking: Steam Based Direct Baking.” Energy Procedia, 2013 ISES Solar World Congress, 57 (Supplement C):2946–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.egypro.2014.10.330

19. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 2006. “Ethiopia: Digital Elevation Model (DEM).” ReliefWeb. 2006. https://reliefweb.int/map/ethiopia/ethiopia-digital-elevation-model-dem-0

20. UNICEF. 2013. “Ethiopia: Migration Profiles.”

21. “Where Is Hargeysa, Somalia?” n.d. WorldAtlas. Accessed December 17, 2017. https://www.worldatlas.com/af/so/wo/where-is-hargeysa.html.

22. Williams-Forson, Psyche A., and Carole Counihan, eds. 2011. “Can We Sustain Sustainable Agriculture.” In Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World. New York: Routledge.

23. “Wollo Province.” 2017. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?

24. Yelibenwork Ayele. 2011. “Slavery in Ethiopia.” African Holocaust Society (blog). October 25, 2011. http://africanholocaust.net/slavery-in-ethiopia/

25. Yetneberk, Senayit, Riette DeKock, Lloyd W. Rooney, and John R. N. Taylor. 2004. “Effects of Sorghum Cultivar on Injera Quality.” Cereal Chemistry – CEREAL CHEM 81 (May). https://doi.org/10.1094/CCHEM.2004.81.3.314

(First image in article is from Rama on Wikimedia Commons)