In 2014, Ethiopian born Yonas Alemu walked into a health food shop and saw teff on the shelf. Initially excited to find someone selling a staple of his African home, he was disappointed to find it came from the US. It was a trigger that saw him leave his successful career in finance and venture into the world as a socially responsible entrepreneur. Aged 47, he created Lovegrass Ethiopia, with the twin mission of bringing the health benefits of Ethiopian teff to the masses, and help Ethiopian farmers grow sustainable businesses.
The journey from farming village to social entrepreneur
“I was born and brought up in a small farming village in northern Ethiopia,” Yonas explains. “My earliest childhood memories are of getting up before dawn to walk through the village and help in the teff farms. I won a university scholarship to Europe and then spent 17 years working in some of the world’s top investment banks. Despite being outwardly successful to others, I spent an increasing amount of time on the trading floor day dreaming about the small village, farmers and the experience of farming teff that I had known and loved from my childhood.”
Doing something more than personal wealth is important to Yonas, a trait common in social entrepreneurs. His advice to others who want to follow in his footsteps is simple: “Make sure you have a higher-level cause above and beyond just making money or gaining personal fame. You need it so that you always have the courage and strength to continue.”
Teff: the new millennia old superfood
Although relatively unknown in the UK, Ethiopians have cultivated teff for millennia. The grain can be used as an alternative to rice or couscous, and milled to produce flour. As well as grains and flour, Lovegrass Ethiopia also offers a waffle and pancake mix, and a multi-award winning teff pasta. Importantly to Yonas, all the grain he uses comes from Ethiopia. “Our Ethiopian grown Habesha Teff is a naturally gluten free grain that’s high in fibre, iron, magnesium and calcium, and is the only grain known to contain significant amounts of Vitamin C.”
Teff is stocked in some supermarkets and health food shops, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham have been reported as fans of the superfood. However, it’s remained at the margins and has yet to push into the wider UK consumer market. “The lack of consumer awareness of Ethiopian teff and its amazing health benefits has been a big challenge,” Yonas notes. “Raising awareness takes time so we take every opportunity to talk about it, the benefits it can bring to the consumer, the farming communities we work with and our Ethiopian origin. We do a lot of sampling of our products, which provides a fantastic opportunity to spread the news.”
Strong branding that harks back to Lovegrass’s African origins is helping to raise awareness. Packaging is also 100 percent recyclable, reinforcing the sustainability thread that runs through the business.
“The positive reaction we get from new customers when they discover this amazing ancient super seed makes it all worthwhile.”
Initially selling online through its website and Amazon marketplace, Yonas has been reaching out to other retailers. Wholefoods and Planet Organic have stocked Lovegrass Ethiopia’s products on their shelves. Although it is early days in trade markets, the potential to add other retail outlets and independent shops is there.
Supporting sustainable Ethiopian farming
Although grown in commercial farms in the US, Europe and India, Yonas wanted to keep Lovegrass close to his Ethiopian roots and support local communities. Working with local farmers is also helping to reduce the environmental damage caused by inefficient traditional methods being combined with fertilizers and deforestation.
“We promote collective farming and use of organic techniques,” he explains. “Not only do we pay 25% more, we always pay in hard currencies so farmers can import essential tools, re-invest in irrigation and use organic fertilisers. Farmers are seeing the economic benefit and they follow it. We are confident that this in the long term will have a tremendous impact on local environment and wellbeing of the farming communities.”
Proving this commitment with certifications has proven difficult because of the high cost of Freetrade and Organic labels relative to the small-scale farmers they support. Not that it’s stopped him from finding a way round the problem. “Because some of the farmers are now working in cooperatives, we aim to get organic certification of their farms by the coming September.”
Lovegrass Ethiopia: a social enterprise on a long-term mission
Teff is an important superfood that’s gaining recognition from consumers for its potential, and which is being more widely cultivated. For Yonas this is not enough, and his vision for Lovegrass Ethiopia extends beyond commercializing a grain from his home country.
“Our mission is twofold,” Yonas says, “enable Ethiopian teff farmers to grow sustainable businesses that can be passed onto the next generation and help to educate people around the world about how versatile and nutritious teff can be.”
Lovegrass Ethiopia’s consumer products can be bought via their website.
To stock them in your health food or independent shop, contact Lovegrass Ethiopia.
This article originally appeared in These Social Times.