Redesigning How Ethiopian Farmers Plant Their Most Important Crop

New Life for an Ancient Grain

Teff is Ethiopia’s most important and widely grown grain and the main ingredient in injera, the national bread. More than 6 million Ethiopian households grow teff, and in 2012, the national production was valued at $1.6 billion.

Teff is a staple in the economy and daily life of Ethiopia, yet improvements in its cultivation have stalled when compared with maize and other crops. The lack of innovation in this space has affected yields, significantly limiting the productivity and livelihoods of farmers across the country.

Teff seeds are some of the smallest on the planet.

Teff has been planted in the same way for thousands of years. By tradition, seeds are broadcast across a field where they fight for sunlight, water, and nutrients. So, in conjunction with Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we set out to redesign teff production literally from the ground up.

After speaking with farmers, local engineers, and agricultural experts to learn everything we could about the cultivation of the world’s smallest grain, our design team created a new agricultural device—a hand-pulled planter that deposits teff’s tiny seeds as well as fertilizer in tidy rows. After a slew of prototypes and a few very sticky run-ins with the highly variable Ethiopian soil, we arrived at a row planter that is already showing markedly improved results. Not only does it take fewer seeds to plant a field, but early test plots are producing teff in spades.

As part of the next phase of the teff planter’s development, IDEO has teamed up with graduate students from Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute to further evolve the design and push it toward maximum impact.

A student from Northwestern University field tests a new version of the planter with a teff farmer.

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