Tef crop improvement

What is the background?

Tef (Eragrostis tef) is the most important cereal crop in the Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, about 6.5 million smallholder farming households grow tef on three million hectares. Tef provides the staple food for about 70 million people. An essential component of Ethiopians’ and Eritreans’ diet, its flour is processed into injera, a spongy bread was eaten at almost every meal.

Despite its great local importance, tef has so far largely been neglected by the international research community. In addition, its seed and grain value chains are not well structured and developed. Yields are much lower than they could be. A major problem is that the tef has weak stalks prone to lodging (falling over), particularly in windy conditions.

What has SFSA done so far?

We have been investing in tef R&D since 2006, in collaboration with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and Switzerland’s University of Bern (UniBern). The work has mainly focused on breeding new varieties with traits that improve smallholders’ yields. The top priority has been the development of “semi-dwarf” tef. This has shorter stalks to prevent lodging. (Semi-dwarf varieties avoid the problem with any very short stalks: tef straw provides important forage. Farmers, therefore, do not want varieties that are too short, even with high grain yield).

Our Tef Improvement Project also works on seed-related technologies. These include pelleting, which would enable Ethiopian agriculture to move to mechanized planting and greatly increase sowing efficiency. Pelleting overcomes the challenge of the tef’s very small seed size.

The first variety to emerge from the program was Tesfa, released in 2017. Ebba and Bora followed in 2019. The two most recent releases are Bishoftu (2020) and Boni (2021).

Fortunately, the armed conflict in Tigray has not affected the tef program, because it runs in other areas of Ethiopia. Social unrest elsewhere did, however, temporarily impede production at one of the seed companies mentioned below.  

Why is Seeds2B now working on tef?

R&D cooperation proved the concept of semi-dwarf tef and opened several other interesting avenues. Our Seeds2B team now aims for significant scale-up.

The varieties released by the Ethiopian authorities have come either from the EIAR/UniBern collaboration or the EIAR’s own breeding program. In order to reach large numbers of farmers, new varieties need to be multiplied and distributed by local seed companies. The tef varieties are all open-pollinated varieties (OPVs). The value of such seeds is low and the OPV market remains insecure. This is not very attractive to private seed companies. In addition, seed technologies and mechanization to boost tef productivity are in their infancy. Companies are understandably keener to invest in more lucrative commercial crops and hybrid seeds, and in crops with more convenient production technologies.

As a technology transfer facilitator, Seeds2B is therefore supporting Ethiopian seed companies in accessing, promoting, and selling new tef varieties. Private companies form an essential bridge between research institutions and farmers.

Whom is Seeds2B working with, and on what?

In 2018, Seeds2B signed an agreement with two Ethiopian seed companies that had already worked in AGRA seeds programs. Both are based south of Addis Ababa. Amuari High Yielding Varieties and Agricultural Products PLC specializes in OPV crops, multiplying and commercializing Early-Generation Seed (EGS). Nono Agricultural Development PLC is a national leader in hybrid maize, now also using its network and expertise to develop tef varieties.

Our collaboration focuses on

  • Defining and accessing varieties adapted to farmers’ and market needs, concentrating on recent releases
  • Multiplying and commercializing the seeds
  • Developing farmers’ and value-chain stakeholders’ awareness through Field Days and other info sessions  
  • Training farmers and seed out-growers on multiplication techniques. Together, we also aim to develop value-chain connections and gain market feedback to guide further breeding work.
  • Promoting and developing seed technologies to support tef production, addressing lodging, as well as mechanization during planting, harvesting, and threshing.

To help drive scale-up, in October 2022 we hired Anteneh Girma. He was previously a seed system senior technical expert at Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Institute. Here he worked on topics such as enforcing plant breeders’ rights, developing legal frameworks, and ensuring institutional support for strengthening the national seed system.

In 2023, Anteneh is focusing on enhancing the linkage between EIAR and the companies. This will help ensure a sufficient volume of early-generation seed (EGS) of target varieties at the required quality level. He is also leading popularization activities for the newly released varieties. These activities include technical support for seed companies in trial design, organizing field demonstration days, documenting varietal preferences of specific user groups, such as women, and engaging key government decision-makers to help promote the new varieties.

Recent key achievements

Since 2018, the program has:

  • Demonstrated 11 varieties to farmers, with seed multiplication by local companies
  • This led to the production of more than 1600 tons of seed, about half of which was EGS
  • Enabled about 100,000 farmers to plant new varieties on more than 50,000 hectares
  • Trained more than 1500 farmers and other stakeholders on ten field days
  • Trained some 400 farmers at eight specific sessions for out-growers

Generated several scientific publications, such as those on our Books & Papers page.

What are the opportunities and next steps?

Seeds2B is taking a multi-pronged approach. We and our partners are

  • Further investigating the whole tef value chain for seeds and grains. Tef can benefit from SFSA expertise in seed systems, stakeholder management, and value-chain connections. The investigation includes understanding cost implications, optimum value creation, and profit-sharing. While initially focusing on Ethiopia, we will also be looking at promising opportunities abroad. These include the international market for gluten-free cereals, of which tef is an excellent example.
  • Examining policy across the seed and grain markets and how the legal system could evolve to support stronger tef development (seed certification, licensing, exports, etc.)
  • Reinforcing seed companies’ role as a rapid route for new varieties and related innovations to reach large numbers of farmers, promote the use of certified seeds, and modernize the crop. We intend to help local companies grow by identifying opportunities to develop their business and to involve more companies to increase impact in other regions.

In May 2022, we signed an agreement with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) to strengthen the tef seed system in Ethiopia. The contract runs through 2023. The focus is on three main activities:

  • Building the capacity of the formal seed sector
  • Understanding the contribution of the informal and formal seed sectors to delivering genetic gains
  • Delivering these gains through both sectors.

In line with our Foundation’s focus on demand-led breeding, we shall be seeking feedback from the value chains. This will help us develop more comprehensive product profiles for tef breeders.