SOCAPtv: A Secret Grain for Social Change with Aleem Ahmed

Posted by on October 9th, 2015

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Aleem Ahmed first got the inspiration for Love Grain while he was working with Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency to improve the productivity of teff farmers. Prior to his teff sojourn, he worked with Innovations for Poverty Action in Kenya to scale-up a drinking water safety technology and chlorine supply chain to reach 500,000 people.

From the stage of SOCAP15, Aleem Ahmed reveals a secret Ethiopian supergrain that most Americans have never heard of. It’s called teff and its been grown in Ethiopia for thousands of years. Teff is considered a national treasure in Ethiopia, and is one of the main ingredients for the local bread, ingera. Not only is teff nutritious, high in fiber, gluten free, and packed with protein, but it tastes great.

“Way better than quinoa,” says Aleem, with laughs from the SOCAP audience.

So why don’t we know about this amazing supergrain?

A First for Teff

Aleem explains that teff is grown exclusively in Ethiopa, a country that was previously isolated from the rest of the world by the former military regime. Fortunately, under the current government, all that is changing. Ethiopia is opening up and the investments, Aleem says, are pouring in. Teff production is on the rise, and for the first time in 10 years Ethiopia will export teff flour in 2016.

A Grain for Social Change

Aleem’s interest in teff goes beyond the possibilities for a healthy grain–it represents potential, and opportunity, for millions of farmers in Ethiopia. As the son of a head start teacher and a world banker, Aleem’s been thinking about social change his whole life, and he believes the time is right for teff.

While working in Kenya on a drinking safety project, he joined the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency and got to meet some of the country’s 6 million teff farmers, including Tigist, whose name means patience.

Tigist waited for change for too long, says Aleem.

Tigist’s family had been farming teff for generations, but she, a widow, and the single caretaker of her children, was never been able to put food on the table for her family year round. At harvest, she would sell her grain to middlemen who would offer her cash immediately, but at low and unfair prices. Tigist would run out of food and have to borrow from friends and neighbors. There were days her family went hungry.

After lining up a buyer for Tigist’s grain at a fair price (25% higher than the middlemen), helping her get access to better seeds and to fertilizer, and after teaching her to plant in rows with fewer seeds for a higher yield, her harvest doubled. And as her grain price grew, and her harvest doubled, Tigit’s profits tripled. With this extra money, Tigist could feed her family year round, pay for medicine when her children fell sick, and send them to school.

The Lightbulb Moment

That’s when Aleem had his lightbulb moment. “I realized I was going to start Love Grain to improve the lives of millions of farmers, just like Tigist.”

Teff, he explains, is from a family of plants called “love grasses.”

Back in the US, Aleem entered an MBA program to help launch Love Grain, and rolled out a teff-based pancake mix.

“Because who doesn’t love brunch?”¬†Aleem says to the SOCAP crowd.

The product ended up selling out, and he is currently working on bringing a healthy teff chip to market.

“By taking teff into the mainstream we can help create a global market for Ethiopia’s six million teff farmers,” says Aleem.

“Together, we can satisfy the huge demand for gluten free health foods and improve the lives of millions of farmers, just like Tigist.”