Long Days on the Tenn: Threshing Teff in Ethiopia

The word “tresh” isn’t used often in our every day conversations, even though this work is so crucial for our daily bread: threshing separates the grain from the straw and chaff. In Switzerland, this is done by huge machines that rapidly shave fields. In Ethiopia, on the other hand, combine harvesters are an exception. Harvesting and threshing is work like in biblical times.

Tiny teff grains on the palm of a hand

Teff – 3000 grains weigh one gram

With sickles, the farmers in the Fogera Plain at Lake Tana cut the teff bunch by bunch. Teff? Outside Ethiopia, this grain is still quite unknown, but for Ethiopians it is the finest of all cereals. Actually a sweet grass, the grains are tiny like poppy seeds. Three thousand teff grains weigh just one gram. With just one kilogram of teff, a field the size of a football field can be sown. For comparison: with wheat, you would need seeds weighing a hundred times as much. Teff can be stored for years, and in rain-damp soil it takes only 36 hours to germinate – no other grain germinates that quickly. These properties made teff predestined for the semi-nomadic way of life of earlier societies: Scientists assume that teff has been cultivated in Ethiopia for at least three thousand years.

After cutting, the teff stalks are stored in man-high piles for a few weeks. Now it is time to prepare the tenn. The farmers in a hamlet work together. They hoe out all the plants on a flat surface. They water the clay soil, then let cattle walk in circles on it to compact it. Also part of the preparation of the threshing floor is that the soil is mixed with cow dung – the dung binds dust.

A few days later, threshing begins on the smoothed and now dry tenn: the farmers lend their cattle to each other. For many hours they let them walk over ever new tufts of teff. Family members also walk in circles. Hooves and the soles of their feet loosen the tiny grains from the husks. With wooden pitchforks, the farmers shake up the straw and then pile it around the tenn, now only teff and husks lie on the place.

The subsequent winnowing, i.e. the separation of grain and chaff, is a technique that has remained unchanged for thousands of years: with a kind of shovel made of wickerwork, the farmers throw the mixture into the air. As small as the grains are, gravity causes them to fall back onto the tenn. The husks and straw remains, however, are carried away sideways by the wind.

Finally, the teff is separated by hand from the last chaff residues and freed from dust with small, homemade brushes and fronds. Although up to 30 percent of the harvest is lost in this traditional threshing, machines have not yet caught on – they are too expensive to buy and maintain, require expensive fuel or electricity, which is not yet available in many places.

That is why teff is a very labour-intensive grain in Ethiopia. It takes many hands and many hours of work until it can be sold on the market. But then teff brings good prices as a much sought-after staple for daily injerra. Especially for the poor farming families, teff is often the most important “cash crop”. They sell the tiny grains and buy maize and wheat, clothes and school supplies for the children.

Teff harvest in Ethiopia: A heap of work

Hooves and soles of feet separate grains from straw and husks

The tenn is being swept out. The threshed straw piles up on the edge

Blowin' in the wind: Grain and chaff are separated in worfing

In autumn 2020, the farmers’ fields in the Fogera plain were flooded by high water. So that they could still harvest in the season and to prevent them from going hungry, Menschen für Menschen helped with the fast-growing teff. 880 families each received six kilograms of seeds and fertiliser as emergency aid. Some farmers achieved harvests of up to 600 kilograms of teff – they multiplied the seeds a hundredfold. On average, the farmers brought in 350 kilograms of teff.

In the following article you will learn more about the food culture in Ethiopia:

Ethiopian kitchen