The Commercialization of Injera: Establishing Standards for the Growing Business of Exporting Injera

Injera, the spongy flatbread that’s central to Ethiopian cuisine, has been a staple within Ethiopia for centuries. But now, many companies have started to produce the food item for consumers in Ethiopia and abroad. Companies like Mama Fresh Injera have gained worldwide popularity for providing the popular dish for food lovers around the world. However, as EBR’s Yoseph Mekonnen reports, the government has been having difficulties to establish and enforce standards for the production and distribution of injera, which may pose problems as it gains increased popularity worldwide.

Recently, injera – the spongy flatbread made of teff that’s central to Ethiopian cuisine – has begun appearing at a number of markets in Ethiopia and around the world. 

Previously, buying injera was usually regarded as something that only people who couldn’t cook for themselves did because of its tiresome fermentation and baking process and lack of space in their homes. However, now it’s become increasingly common for people from all walks of life to purchase injera, regardless of their culinary skill level.  

Changes in lifestyle, especially people living in condominiums with tiny kitchen facilities, as well as the vast and expansive Ethiopian Diaspora, have contributed to the popularity of injera being sold worldwide. 

As a result, the number of markets and shops in Ethiopia and aboard that sell injera have grown exponentially. Many storeowners who were approached by EBR say that injera has become one of their most sought after products. 

The average price for injera in Ethiopia ranges from ETB3.50 up to ETB4.50 per piece.

“Usually many people tell me to save injera for them whenever they are late, because they know that it will be sold out,” says Ali Mohammed, a shopkeeper around Woyera Condominium. “There are many other customers who need injera. I usually sell and finish the injera before 7PM.” 

And it’s not just households; institutions also have an increased demand for injera. The booming number of hotels and higher learning intuitions in the country has also contributed to this surge in demand for injera. 

For instance, Addis Ababa University, the country’s largest university, consumes more than 18,000 injera pieces per day. The University buys one injera piece for roughly ETB 4.46 and spends, on average, more than ETB 12 million for injera annually.

“The process of preparing injera for our cafe-using students proved to be tiresome and time-consuming. We want to give priority for educational matters, so we have outsourced the production of injera to other external companies,” said Assefa Woldemariam, student services director at the University. 

Outsourcing labor is not only used by universities to avoid the cumbersome injera-making process; hotels and restaurants do this as well. Teferi Mekonnen serves as a supervisor for a restaurant and cafe located on African Avenue. His business uses more than 1,400 injera pieces per month and this amount is being supplied by another injera-producing company. 

Following the commercialization of injera, many small and big injera-supplying businesses have opened up, some of which have achieved quite a bit of success. Among these businesses is Mama Fresh Injera. The family-owned business, which began operations in 2003, used to bake between 300 to 500 injera pieces per day at its inception stage.

“When we started we used to sell one injera for 0.75 cents to attract customers,” says Hailu Tessema, general manger of Mama Fresh. “It had been a bad thing to buy injera from shops in Ethiopia for many years, but now that has become history.” 

However, now the price of injera has increased quite a bit. Teff, the grain that is used to produce injera, has, in recent years, experienced inflated prices, which is usually attributed to the price increase of injera. Three years ago, Mama Fresh had a teff supply problem, but now the manger says that they have a reliable teff supply.

“Monthly they buy 400 quintals of teff from the farmers’ union for an average price of ETB 1,700 per quintal. Now that we have this reliable supply, we have the capacity of producing 15,000 injera per day,” Hailu told EBR.

Approximately eight years ago, following the increasing price of teff and its fragile supply, the government has banned its export.

“The majority of Ethiopians are reliant on this grain, so at that time, letting exporters export it abroad would have created a shortage and inflated prices in the country,” says Abdurahman Seid, deputy communications head at the Ministry of Trade.

But this ban didn’t last forever. Understanding the Ethiopian Jews’ love for injera, now the Israeli and Ethiopian governments have an agreement in which the country imports teff from Ethiopia. The two countries’ governments have signed a special teff trading deal because of the more than 125,000 Ethiopian Jews who are living in Israel.      

Despite the ban on exporting teff, the exporting of injera is gaining momentum and increasing in both volume and value. 

The large number of Ethiopians living abroad is one of the reasons why injera is being exported on a massive scale. Tourists who have had exposure to the taste of injera is also another reason, according to Asnake Fikre (PhD), crop researcher at the Ethiopian Agriculture Research Institute.  

This global appeal means big business for those involved in the injera-producing sector. For example, in January 2014, 40Pct of Mama Fresh’s shares were bought by 12 American investors who hope to get involved in the injera-making business. 

“We have started to prepare products other than injera and we will be releasing those new products at the end of this year,” says the manager of Mama Fresh.  “We want to see injera and other teff products on dinner tables around the world. We are sure we can make this a reality,” he adds.

The Company, which started with 8 workers, now has created jobs for more than 142 people in Ethiopia and abroad. The company exports injera to Sweden, Norway, Germany, Finland and Nigeria.  Between September 2013 and July 2014, the Company exported injera worth of USD1.3million. This amount is about 65Pct of the company’s production. “When we started exporting injera five years ago, the money that we would get was not more than USD50,000, but now we are experiencing an upsurge in our exports. The average price of injera abroad is 1 USD.” 

Following the commercialization of injera in 2013, the Ethiopian Standards Agency (ESA) established specifications for teff injera. “We prepared this specification because several requests came from many injera exporting small micro-enterprise companies and other injera exporters,” says Ketma Tolosa, standards development project manager at ESA. “Our Agency believes that the preparation of the standards helps injera producers involve themselves in the exporting process.”

The specifications provide details of the inputs used for the production of injera. Moreover, according these specifications, the minimum size of injera must be 51cm in diameter while having 310g net mass. The moisture content also must be 58g to 63g of the injera. Along with these requirements, the packaging of injera also has requirements: product name, nutritional facts, best before date, ingredients, address of producer or exporter, trade name, weight, storage instructions and country of origin. 

ESA claims responsibility only to prepare the specifications; it transferred the enforcement to government entities like the Ethiopian Food, Medicine and Health Care Administration and Control Authority (FMHCACA). However, FMHCACA states that it is difficult to implement these specifications in the current injera production setups in the country.

“Most of the people who are involved in producing injera can’t fulfil these criteria, so we can’t implement it now, unless great awareness creation work is done by the ESA itself,” says Mehari Birhane, food distribution director at FMHCACA.

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