Sisay Shimelis’ Dream of Automating Injera Baking

By Birhanu Fikade

Injerization: to staple up the staple food

Moving south from the capital, Addis Ababa, and closing in to the rift valley, we might find ourselves in the town of Bishoftu, about 45km away. There, we can find a company that is targeting the rebirth of a primary staple food-injera. The first sight upon entering the premises of Nutrafrica is nothing but different varieties of the teff crop.

Sisay Shimelis is the man who dreamed better days for injera and later his Pennsylvania University colleagues came aboard. Together they set up a team of experts to establish a company that hoped to reach even other African and western countries’ markets with the food processing and agro industry outputs. However, the Ethiopian market will meet the new and improved face of injera in the very immediate future.

According to the study conducted by Nutrafrica, Ethiopians fell in love with injera long time ago, and it also evolved into one of major parts in their diet without adequately understanding what it is made of and how. Hygienic and sanitary issues in connection with the baking injera are the most dreadful, the research noted. Across the cities, no one dares to ask what the contents of their store bought injera is; rather they prefer to take it for granted that the ingredient is the tiny-grained teff. Sisay thinks that might not be the case. His colleagues and Sisay spent three years researching not only the nutritional values, but also the business model where baking injera could be a business for the bigger and markets; they say “no more doubts about how it is prepared.” The basics of food production and health should take their place in the process of preparing the Injera; there are just too many people depending on it to ignore.

The issues of health is one side. There comes the concern for the environment. In most cases, baking injera involves firewood as a source of fuel. That, according to Yanis Alexis (PhD), president of International Water Resource Organization, will result in unpleasant consequences to the society. If Ethiopia continues to depend on firewood, with the rapidly increasing population, Yanis feels that there will not be enough vegetation to support the demand for fuel; not even the entire forest in the Amazon. A household consumes about 400 kg of firewood every year, he estimates. However, the process of baking injera also involves high carbon emission. It is estimated that baking one million injera could result in 60 tons of CO2.

To reduce such pressing challenges, Sisay and his colleagues met a renowned designer, Micheal Ma, who managed to design a machine that can bake 5000 injeras per hour. The machine is designed to incorporate many features; and most importantly, the taste and texture that Ethiopians are accustomed to are also designed to be there, Sisay explains.

Ma is well known in the western society for his creative presence in many computer machines that goes with the logo, Intel. That is not the only brainchild that Ma has on his resume. He is also associated with designing the most luxuries cars that only billionaire Bill Gate and few others afford to drive. The recent smart car manufactured by Mercedes Benz was born in the mind of Ma.

According to Sisay, the mass production of injera with the absolute health consideration and proven nutritional values will enable the company to offer the injera at a much discounted price. The new injera will have a shelf life of two weeks thanks to the genetic engineering and without including additional preservatives to it. Professor Zigler, an expert on nutrition, is working on how to increase its shelf life. The most challenging nature of injera is the mold it holds.

According to Professor Zigler, it was proved that it’s possible to extract the bacteria that results in forming a mold. To the extent, it is possible to add some flavors depending on desire. We have a vanilla-flavored injera, he said.

After providing the consumers with better injera, the next challenge might be trying the export market; perhaps baking it a bit differently. With the addition of some desired flavors some of the US and Europe market could become good destinations for the product.

Sisay is confident that within a few months Nutrafrica will ignite the initial stages of the big injera project. He said that currently, about 300 women who were traditionally baking injera will become the sales agents to the company after acquiring the basic trainings.

Nutrafrica plans to invest about 50 million birr as a start-up capital for the new production line. However, Sisay says that there are many new ventures in injera manufacturing. Biofuel operated transportation and logistics, mechanized farming and outgrowing schemes and other initiatives are said to be safe havens to the injera plant in providing uninterrupted supply of raw materials. That will enable the company to be consistent with its price and not to compromise quality, Sisay concludes.