Local Startup Is Marrying Health Food with Ethical Business

Love Grain is a new company that works with an Ethiopian, gluten-free grain called teff.

love grain

Love Grain’s breakfast mix. Photo provided to bostonmagazine.com

Love Grain, a startup based in Boston, may fit squarely into the city’s health food scene—it sells gluten-free foods—but it got there largely by accident. It all started when founder Aleem Ahmed, a dual graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management, traveled to Kenya to work on a water safety project. There, he saw how many people in Africa rely on farming to make their living.

“I realized that’s what was the most important issue to them, food agriculture and farming,” Ahmed says. “And if there was a way to improve the agricultural system, that would be one way to improve their lives.”

Ahmed’s desire to help led him to the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency, an organization aiming to double Ethiopia’s food production capacity, where he discovered a tiny, gluten-free grain called teff. It’s harvested almost exclusively in Ethiopia and is exceptionally high in fiber, protein, iron, and amino acids.

“Teff holds a very special place in Ethiopia’s cultural heritage. To be Ethiopian is to eat teff,” Ahmed explains. “There really weren’t very many companies in Ethiopia that had the ability to purchase directly from farmers because they didn’t have scale, and then I started looking abroad and realized that really there weren’t folks outside of Ethiopia that knew about teff, nor were there companies converting teff grain into foods that fit the Western lifestyle.”

Ahmed began searching for ways to help teff farmers, and when he returned to the U.S. and realized how obsessed the American culture was with gluten-free foods, he saw how he could do it. “That’s sort of when the lightbulb went off,” he says. “In Ethiopia we have these farmers who are trying to sell their products directly to market to get better prices for their grain, and here in the States there’s a growing consumer base that’s really interested in healthier food products and healthier grains.”

Today, Love Grain uses Ethiopian-grown teff purchased directly from farmers to make its first product, a breakfast mix for making nutritious pancakes, waffles, muffins, or scones. The mix costs $11.95 per bag and is currently sold online and at select Boston-area retailers.

Next, Ahmed says, he will travel back to Ethiopia in January to start developing Love Grain’s second product, a teff-based popped chip, that could be available as soon as mid-2015. It’s a small step forward, but one that Ahmed says is key to his vision for the company. “I’d like to see Love Grain grow in three phases,” he says. “One is continued market expansion, second is beginning to start processing and producing in Ethiopia, so returning some of that value created in Ethiopia, and then third is to begin working directly with teff farmer cooperatives in Ethiopia.”