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  • Writer's pictureMax

Injera, avocado juice, and tej - seven days in Ethiopia

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

Before getting into the story, I’ll admit that I was incredibly excited to arrive in Ethiopia. We had been working together for almost two years, but our exchanges were always confined to email and zoom. What would it feel like once I got off the long direct flight from the US to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital with over 5.3 million inhabitants?

Fortunately, we have been working with some great colleagues like Nahom, who couldn’t wait to show us around. Nahom is our AI-Driven Climate-Smart Beekeeping (AID-CSB) intern and just started his studies in Poland to embark on his Computer Science journey, and he took care of us every step of the way.

Laura, the project manager from ICARDA (i.e., our formidable project partner locally), and I were hosted on the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) Campus, a marvelously green piece of land in the middle of Addis. The campus is home to over a dozen international organizations, including most of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) organizations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), our local partner.

Jetlag was tough on us, which everybody seemed to notice as people everywhere gently smiled at my tired gaze. On the very first day, we went to a women-run restaurant and tried one of the staple foods in Ethiopia’s cuisine: injera, which is fermented bread with a mildly sour note. One of the Ethiopian traditions I love is washing your hands before and after every meal, as eating with your hands is a common tradition.

Our injera kick-off was the starting point of about a dozen meals, where it played an important role. Sometimes it was served as a side, and sometimes, the entire meal was served on top of the round injera.

You may have seen the picture at the top of this article and asked yourself, “What is Max drinking?” Isn’t the line, the surprising contrast between the green and orange, a fascinating spectacle? It’s not just one, it’s two new beverages mixed that I had never tasted before: papaya and avocado juice. It’s a staple in Ethiopia and something you should definitely try.

On that note, a beverage I heard a lot about is tej, a honey-based, fermented alcoholic drink traditionally brewed by almost every household. Its sweet taste made me think that this country has developed a respectable hangover tolerance. As it turns out, it is one of the reasons Ethiopia is home to one of the largest beekeeper communities in the world. I limited myself to a few sips as we had our flight early in the morning.

It is said that Ethiopia has at least 1.5 million beekeepers, which is at least six times the number of US beekeepers. This is incredibly impressive and one of the key reasons why we work across several sites within Ethiopia. Our local partners are icipe (working with beekeepers in the Amhara region) and the Holeta Bee Research Center, based in the Oromia region.

A few key highlights of our visit were prototype testing our new symptom checker in Amharic with three beekeepers. While they loved the functionality and provided a few important highlights, the critical bottleneck of the beekeeping sector is access to funds to grow their operations. So how can we use our software to offer financial services to beekeepers locally? This wasn’t just an important revelation to us but is becoming a key target for next year.

Our final workshop at the ILRI Campus brought together more than 40 people from different organizations, including governments and organizations active across the entire country. For 2023, we have a clear plan to start the scaling process of our technology to help beekeepers improve bee health, their livelihoods, and access financial services. As I headed to the airport, I couldn’t wait to come back and enjoy another sip of tej, a bite of injera, and maybe some avocado-papaya juice.

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