“I cannot think of coffee without cornflakes scattered over the green grass to decorate the coffee setting,” says Meskerem Teshome, who is the coffee girl in Yod Abyssinia, gesturing toward the popcorn that is being placed around 300 little white coffee cups to be served up to customers.
Yod Abyssinia is one of the pioneers of Ethiopian traditional restaurant, which was established in 2003.
Yod Abyssinia utilises around half-a-kilo of pop corn daily on normal days, which is enough for all its customers drinking coffee, according to Firehiwot Tefera, supervisor at Yod Abysssinia. Come the holidays, the consumption could be up to a kilogram.
Holidays mean the same for the business people at Minalesh Tera, Merkato, selling pop corn. Sales could increase three-fold, says Amir Mohammed, one of the traders.
Most of the grain retailers that Fortune visited at Minalesh Tera carry the imported variety, labeled Crown Product Inc, which is a US based export trading company that arranges the packaging and shipping of pulses and food items products under its own Crown brand. The company was founded in 1989. The product, which is packed in small bags of 20Kg each can be bought for around 400 Br from wholesalers, adding around 5 Br price on each Kilo, they sold one kilo for around 25 Br to customers, said Amir. Of seven that Fortune interviewed, only Amir had a small amount of the locally grown popcorn, which has a slightly faded yellow colour and larger size. He sells it for 22 Br a kilo.
According to Stake Europe Ltd, a cereals processing engineer, a dull coloured corn often indicates that the cereal is old or has been harvested or stored under unfavourable conditions. For example, it is advised to harvest corn when its moisture content is low in order to minimize damage to the kernel.
Ethiopia is the fifth largest producer of maize in Africa, with the cultivation primarily concentrated in the Amhara, Oromia and Southern regions. In 2013/14, fiscal year, around six million tonnes of maize was produced, amounting to 33pc of the total crop production. And popcorn is one type of corn that is counted under this aggregated production.
“We do not have separate data on popcorn production. In fact, we do not have any data on it,” said Ali Serrur, cereal crops case team coordinator at the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) prepares various package programmes in relation to improved seed selection and cultivation. These include varieties of maize that will be used for food preparation such as bread and porridge, said Ali. However, since no farmer has demanded the popcorn seed and it has never been provided by the Ethiopian Improved Seed Enterprise, the Ministry of Agriculture has overlooked the cereal, he added.
The seed that is in the hands of the farmers and is being used to produce popcorn is open-pollinated, which means that the seed can at least be recycled three times and cultivated.
In 2011/12 the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) introduced a popping corn seed know as Gibe Awash, which was imported from Nigeria and tested for about four years under the environmental condition of Ethiopia, said Legesse Wolde (PhD.), senior maize researcher at the EIAR. It was found to be useful for the rift valley region, and the seed has been distributed to such places as Boku, Melkasa and Adama, he added.
It would be a failure if it is cultivated in the western part of the country, because of the heavy rains of the Kiremt season, which run from June to September, which could easily soak and ruin the crop, said Legesse.
Awash Gibe popcorn can give 35 to 45 quintals of production in one hectare of land within 130 to 135 days. However, because of lack of intensive promotion and distributers, the seed has remained mostly in the hands of the research institute, said Legesse.
The popcorn traders mostly carry the imported one, which pops better, says Alemu Merka, another retailer. The local variety has almost no demand, he adds. Popping is determined by the genetic make-up of the varieties. The Awash Gibe variety has a 90pc popping capacity, he says, while the maximum capacity for any popcorn is 96pc
Tigist Girmay and Almaz Sisay, two friends from Ayer Tena, who are in their forties, have been coming to Minalesh Tera for the past seven years to get their supply of popcorn.
“We usually come during the holidays,” Tigist says.
For Christmas, they got a kilo of imported popcorn each, which lasts them for two months or so, using a tea-cup or less of popping corn, which they will use for other monthly religious holidays as well, said Almaz.
The same kind which Almaz and Tigist were buying, so does Mati Multiplex Cinema located, is in Edna Mall, which during peak days, Friday through Sunday, sells around 600 packs of popcorn a day and 400 packs on other days.
If farmers cultivate this crop on a small plot of land in off-season period or parallel to main crops, they could generate income that could be used for household expenses, says Legesse.
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