FOR CENTURIES IN ETHIOPIA, and perhaps even for millennia, women made injera through a labor-intensive process that required them to pour the batter onto a hot clay mitad one piece at a time, piece after piece, letting it cook for a few minutes, removing it, and then beginning the process all over again.
That’s how virtually every injera makers still does it in American cities with injera bakeries that distribute their fresh wares to markets every morning.
But innovation and technology has slowly begun to change that: Now you can make injera in mass quantities using automated devices that require far less human labor than the traditional way.
Zelalem Injera, with locations in Dallas and Washington, D.C., makes its daily bread with the Zelalem Injera Machine, the creation of Dr. Wudneh (“Woody”) Admassu, an Ethiopian-born professor of chemical engineering at the University of Idaho.
The machine can turn out 1,000 pieces of injera an hour with only two employees stationed at the end of the process to package them, and then a few more to load them onto a truck and ship them out daily, seven days a week. It’s an invention built to last: “Zelalem” is the Amharic word for “forever,” a name Wudneh chose because injera and the food you eat with it sustain you for a lifetime. It’s also the name of his first-born son.
Wudneh applied for a patent for his invention in 2002 and officially received it on June 20, 2006. (Note: The patent links here allow you to see detailed drawings of each machine).
The U.S. Patent Office has awarded patents to a few other injera machines, but as far as I can tell, they haven’t yet been built and aren’t producing injera. Here’s a roundup, with links to the patent applications that show the designs of the machines:
♦ Method and Apparatus for Making Bread, invented by Mengistu Kindie and two others and patented in 2003. The application speaks often of using the machine to make injera, as well as other breads, and Mengistu is Ethiopian.
♦ Injera Baking Machine invented by Yoseph Temesgen of Dallas and patented in 2008.
♦ Methods of and Apparatus for Making Ethiopian Bread, invented by Emru Desalegn of Garland, Texas, and patented in 2005.
♦ Wassie Mulugeta, who owns the successful Wass Ethiopian Restaurant in Hamilton, Ontario, has “been working the last 12 years to make a fundamental development change in the way we cook in Ethiopia.” In 2007, he invented a mitad for making injera at home the old-fashioned way, one piece at a time. He didn’t have the money to market it at the time, but his restaurant was successful, and now his mitad is for sale. His Rotary Baking System and Method for making injera received a patent in 2011, but so far he hasn’t built one to mass produce injera.
Wassie’s effort to build an injera machine began in 1999 with a conveyor belt system that didn’t work well, so he put the project aside for a while. He tackled it again in 2006, and again in 2008, finally creating a machine that worked. But he didn’t have the capital to build it, so he opened his restaurant instead. He tested his injera machine again in 2010, and he says it now works well. He just has to find the money to build the factory to go with it.
ONE OF THE WORLD’S NEWEST injera machines is the product of an Ethiopian-American man’s dream to help people in his country eat more regular and nutritious meals, beginning their their daily bread.
Sisay Shimeles, who has degrees in structural engineering and international finance, was born in Addis Ababa, educated in France, Germany and Russia, and now lives in State College, Pa., where he’s worked with Pennsylvania State University’s Learning Factory in the School of Engineering to make an injera machine for use in Ethiopia. After nearly five years of work, and with the help of California-based designer Michael Ma, Sisay’s first Injerama machine, patented in 2012, arrived from the manufacturer on July 11. He’s now working to get it to Ethiopia and begin making injera.
But it won’t be just your average injera: Sisay says the bread will be nutritionally fortified to improve the health of the people who eat it – and who rarely get three meals a day. “This project is about health, environment and job creation,” Sisay says.
To fortify his product, Sisay works with Greg Ziegler, a food process engineer at Penn State who’s developing a formula – that is, a recipe – for mixing grains in a way that gets more of the essential amino acid lysine into the injera. Teff, a highly nutritious grain, is low in lysine, whereas grains like buckwheat, sorghum and barley are higher. So the injera that Sisay finally markets will be a mix of those grains, although Ziegler says the company may also make some pure teff injera to satisfy that niche.
According to studies he’s read, Ziegler said Ethiopians get about 75 percent of their daily calories from injera but only 15 percent from teff, which shows that injera in Ethiopia is already being made with a mix of grains, in large part because teff is more expensive. Once he comes up with a nutritional recipe in the lab at Penn State, “we’ll have to see if what we do is validated in real life,” he says. “We’ll definitely do some consumer testing there.” In Ethiopia, he says, some people even add a bit of the spice fenugreek to their injera. This, too, increases the lysine content, even if Ethiopians don’t realize it.
Jeff Catchmark, who teaches in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, worked with the project for a few terms, and he commends Sisay for his “compelling and admirable vision” for his country. Catchmark is now working on sustainable products related to food, including a biodegradable wrapper for injera that will keep it fresh for several days and that people can then bury to dispose of it.
When his first plant is in full operation, Sisay wants to have 10 machines side by side. The process begins, of course, with the milling of the teff and the mixing and fermenting of the batter: As Sisay describes it, there’s a milling center, a mixing chamber, a kneading chamber, a re-mixing chamber, several days of batter fermentation, and then the final re-mixing chamber. Finally, he says, “pumps take the batter from the final re-mix room directly to the machine ready to spread out to the batter deposit chamber. You can imagine the number of mixers and fermentation tanks the batter has to pass through before it reaches the processing machine.”
The company will begin production in Debre Zeyit, a city south of Addis Ababa known for its amber fields of teff. “Our facility sits on a 5,000-meter-square giant building that was designed by a Swiss builder for the purpose of food processing,” Sisay says. “We have the space to put 10 machines with their long conveyors belts coming to the central packaging system. It is the engineering marvel of taking the 3,000-year making of injera into the modern era of making injera.”
Sisay would ultimately like to build one Injerama machine for every 20,000 Ethiopians. The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance gave the team a $51,200 grant to help build the first machine, but now Sisay must raise funds to expand the operation. He’s also formed a company called NutrAfrica to package and market the injera. And because Ma’s design is simpler than other injera machines, “with fewer parts and more basic technology,” the patent application says, this means “opportunities for breakdown are reduced and the ability to be maintained by the unskilled labor available in Ethiopia is enhanced.”
But for Sisay, it’s about more than an injera machine: He aspires to use the machine as a part of an overall food delivery system to help improve the health of Ethiopians, although he acknowledges, “there is still a long way to go to complete the integrated food delivery system in Ethiopia that will serve as a prototype for those people at the bottom of the pyramid.” He wants to make a difference “from the farm up to the table, the whole thing. The machine is just one small part of it. If I have the machine, and I don’t have a supply of teff, it doesn’t do any good for me.”
Traditional farmers now harvest teff in a time-consuming way that results in the loss of a lot of grain, not to mention time. So he’s working with other scientists to help increase teff yield and to bring modernization to the harvest. Ethiopia has also lost nearly 90 percent of its forests because traditional injera stoves burn wood. The fumes from the stoves cause health problems for the women who make the bread, and “it’s very hard to look at,” Sisay says. He hopes his machine will allow women to retrain and make injera in a safer, healthier way.
“We are not only working on the machine,” Sisay says. “My overall project is to integrate food delivery systems in East Africa. My vision is to start small and think big. All of these people are working with the same vision that I have – to make a difference.”
BUT THE BIG PLAYER IN THE FIELD is still Zelalem, and with two machines at work, both operated by members of the same family: the original machine, launched in Dallas in 1998, and run by Elfenesh Maru and her husband, Habte Retta, who also own the neighboring Maru Grocery; and the Washington machine, launched in 2004, and run by Elfenesh’s brother, Kassahun (“Kassa”) Maru, with the help of their two other siblings, brother Agegeneh (“Aggie”) and sister Lemlem, who only more recently came to America.
This family connection goes even deeper: Wudneh and the Marus are “cousin-ish,” as Wudneh puts it, an example of how kinship ties came to America with the diaspora. Like Wudneh, Kassa grew up far from the city, in traditional southern Ethiopia, and moved to Addis for high school. When he graduated, he got a job as an accountant with Wudneh’s uncle. That’s where the two men became friends, and as the communist revolution began to take hold, Kassa urged the younger Wudneh to go to America, which he did. Soon Wudneh invited his friend to join him, and the rest of the Maru family followed in the years and decades after that.
Wudneh got his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Oregon and his doctorate at the University of Idaho. He worked for Dow Chemical in California for six years – he holds several patents from his work there – then returned to Idaho to join the faculty of his alma mater. Kassa says that he had “always pushed Woody to build something for Ethiopia.” As Wudneh remembers it, his friend often talked about creating a better griddle to make injera and gently badgered him with comments about “good-for-nothing engineers.” Finally, in 1995, at a soccer match in San Diego, Kassa introduced Wudneh to a man who wanted to talk about financing a machine to make injera.
“That’s when I knew Kassa was serious about this thing,” Wudneh says. “But nobody knew what the machine would look like. We had no idea.” So he set out to invent one, which turned out to be harder than he’d imagined.
“What I didn’t know is how delicate injera is,” he recalls. “You have the bubbly eye, the circular geometry, it’s a little bit elastic, it’s smooth on the back side, the fluffy texture – you have all of these things. And I said, ‘Oh, man, what did I get myself into?’”
He began playing around with ideas for a belt system with a smooth surface, and then with a good heat transfer system. A prototype didn’t work, and he consulted a mechanical engineering friend, whose advice solved some problems. He also watched Elfenesh and his wife, Elizabeth, make injera, jotting down the proportions of flour and water, something an Ethiopian woman never does when she cooks.
Three years later, after more trial and error, the Zelalem Injera Machine went from the drawing board to the assembly line. They formed a company, Zelfiwu Inc., which owns the patent. Wudneh is its president and chief executive officer. Kassa, Elfenesh, Habte and Elizabeth are the other shareholders.
At Zelalem in Washington, the making of injera begins with the mixing of the batter. Kassa uses a blend of many flours: buckwheat, whole wheat, barley, self-rising and, of course, teff. The ingredients are placed in heavy plastic containers the size of industrial garbage cans, where they’re blended with a mechanical paddle.
It looks simple, but the paddle was one of Wudneh’s first challenges: injera must have “eyes” on top, and these eyes come from balancing carbonation and fermentation. If you agitate the batter, you won’t get the balance right. A regular paddle would cause too much of the carbon dioxide to escape, so he developed a paddle that stirred these huge containers of thick batter at just the right angle and with just the right amount of sheer.
“When our mothers and sisters put batters side by side,” Wudneh says, “I cannot tell, but they can tell you if it’s ready or not. If you don’t have the viscosity right, you will not make injera. You will make a pancake.”
Next, the containers go into a pre-fermentation room for 24 hours and sit at room temperature (which, during the summer in Washington, is often in the 90s). Then they go into a refrigerated fermentation area for six to eight days. This keeps mold away and allows the fermentation to continue more slowly. Kassa has dozens of containers going at once, and the chamber is redolent with the tart aroma of fresh injera, the flavor of fermentation already in the air.
During this stretch of the process, Kassa skims the top of each barrel two or three times. The commercial flours he uses have salt and preservatives, and these elements float to the top, along with excess water. He uses two kinds of barrels: the gray, 32-gallon Rubbermaid Brute, and a brick-red oval-shaped container of nearly equal capacity, imported from Greece and used there to ship olives.
Ethiopians don’t chill their fermenting batter at home. But in the long run, this part of the Zelalem process is one of several elements that give the company’s injera a longer shelf life after it’s baked.
When a batch of batter is ready, it gets stirred very gently to distribute the carbon dioxide without releasing too much of it. Now it’s time to make the injera. Each barrel is fitted with a suction hose, which draws the batter up into the first station of the 35-foot-long Zelalem machine. Two side-by-side, computer-operated spouts drip batter onto the heat-resistant wire mesh conveyor belt. The computerized program measures just the right amount of batter for a piece of injera.
The next station spreads each dollop of batter out to a circumference of about 12 inches, the size of most American-made injera. This was another especially tricky part for Wudneh. It’s done with an arm that swiftly swirls above each dollop, blowing a gentle stream of air onto it. A computer program and the speed of the conveyor belt time the process to perfection.
Now that each dollop of batter is the proper size, it goes into the oven. Four silver metal hoods encase the batter, with the temperature inside averaging 500 degrees (the material of the belt can withstand temperatures of up to 800 degrees). Women who make injera by hand on a mitad must cover each piece during the baking process, but they need to be careful to let moisture escape or else the eyes won’t form. Inside the Zelalem machine, a process of flash vaporization cooks the bread, and at the end of the oven, a ventilation hose removes 80 percent of the water from the enclosure.
What exactly goes on inside the oven, apart from the application of heat, is something Wudneh won’t reveal about his invention: “It we couldn’t come up with that,” he says, “it wouldn’t work. The technique is to make it fluffy on the top, with eyes on the top. If you have eyes on both sides, it’s not injera.”
After a few minutes in the oven, the baked injera emerges from the other end, stuck to the surface on which it was baked. That’s where Wudneh’s final innovation steps in. In Ethiopia, women often remove the injera from a mitad first by gently blowing around the edges to loosen it, and then by slipping a large flat piece of wicker called a sefed between the injera and the mitad. For health reasons alone, that wouldn’t work in an industrial setting. So the Zelalem machine has two swirling mini-spatulas that slip under the edges of each piece of injera and gently lift it from the surface.
Finally, a worker at the end of the line picks up each piece of injera, piles them all on one another in stacks of seven or 10, then slips them into plastic bags with the Zelalem label.
It’s all pretty slick, but of course, it didn’t come about easily. “It took Woody a year just to get the eye part right,” Kassa says. The D.C. operation turns out about 5,000 pieces of injera a day, stoking up the process each night around 9, and wrapping the last 10-pack about 12 hours later.
The company sells three varieties: “yellow label,” with 10 pieces to a pack; “green label,” with seven pieces to a pack and more whole grain flour in the recipe; and recently, a pure teff variety, with seven pieces to a pack. Each product’s label includes nutritional information: one 12-inch piece has 340 calories.
Ethiopians in Dallas and then in Washington were reluctant at first to accept injera made by machine, and Wudneh recalls the chatter among the community. People claimed the process added chemicals to the batter, which it does not, and that a machine would take jobs away from home injera makers. “But if that is the case,” Wudneh says, “then technology has to stop, and that’s not going to happen.”
More than a decade into the enterprise, Zelalem injera is now available at markets all around the Dallas and D.C. areas, and Kassa says it sells as well as the hand-made product. The company even offered its products nationwide through its website, shipping the injera from both Dallas and D.C., but will discontinue its online sales this month.
Making injera one piece at a time – or even in a factory with 400 individual wood-burning ovens – isn’t very efficient, and it’s destroying the Ethiopian environment. Ethiopia was once nearly 50 percent forest; now it’s just 3 percent. And while technology in Ethiopia is improving, ovens still omit pollutants from burning wood and dung. With a machine mass producing injera, Wudneh says, the price will come down, “and then you can supply everybody.”
University of Pittsburgh
Watch an interview, in Amharic, with Kassa Maru of Zelalem Injera.
Watch a Zelalem Injera commercial in Amharic, with images of the machine at work.