Ancient grain new ‘superfood’

Growing popularity of fonio in West offers hope to sub-Saharan farmers, but production challenges must be overcome

After harvest, women in Senegal’s Kedougou region stomp fonio with their feet to detach the grains
After harvest, women in Senegal’s Kedougou region stomp fonio with their feet to detach the grains
Image: Raff - Senegal

For centuries, women in West Africa’s cereal belt have relied on fonio, a small, nutty grain, to feed their families.

Now, Adja Aissata Aya Ndiaye, a farmer in Kedougou in southeastern Senegal, thinks fonio could become a staple across the continent, and eventually around the world.

“We want to take over the global market,” Ndiaye, 62, said.

Over in New York, Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam has the same aim.

He is on a mission to raise fonio’s profile at home and abroad, believing it can generate much-needed income for West African farmers hit by shifting weather patterns.

“Our goal is to make it possible for farmers to make a living growing fonio,” Thiam said.

Cultivated in Senegal, Ghana, Mali and other parts of the sub-Saharan region, fonio has been dubbed “the new quinoa” by superfood fans in the West – it is gluten-free, high in protein and amino acids, and very easy to cook.

Agriculture experts say the drought-resistant, fast-growing plant has the potential to help ease hunger linked to the negative impacts of climate change.

But despite fonio’s benefits, Senegalese farmers struggle to make money from the grain.

Fonio is less popular with local consumers than rice or millet, and processing it can be laborious and costly.

In the face of those challenges, Thiam is working with SOS SAHEL, a Dakar-based non-profit organisation focused on food security and nutrition, and a network of farmers like Ndiaye to get the grain onto plates all over the world.

Fonio already has a small but growing fan base in the US, mainly due to Thiam.

He has spent the past few years promoting West African cuisine through his work as a consultant chef and building an import market for fonio with the company he cofounded, Yolele Foods.

Yolele took its first steps towards the mass market in 2017, when it made a deal with Whole Foods Market to stock the grain in some of its New York grocery stores.

A year later, Yolele started selling fonio online, and supplying restaurants and retailers.

Fonio is well suited to hot climates with unpredictable weather patterns. Its highly developed root system makes it resistant to drought, and the plant matures quickly, making it a reliable crop for farmers unsure of when the next rains will come.

But before fonio can catch on in the West, farmers in Senegal need to overcome the obstacles that are stifling the domestic market, Thiam said.

While farmers have little trouble growing fonio, producing enough of it at export quality is a challenge, he said.

And removing the grain from the husk is labour-intensive. Farmers usually chop down the hay-like stalks by hand and then stomp on them to release the grains, which are smaller than couscous.

During the process, sand often gets mixed in with the grains, and separating it out is a long, slow job.

Some villages have fonio dehusking machines, but they are expensive, costing around 140,000 West African francs (R3,415), Ndiaye said.

The extra labour involved in producing fonio discourages many farmers, which limits supply and pushes up the price.

Farmers can make up to 600 West African francs per kilogramme selling fonio, more than twice what they can get for rice, experts say.

But the high labour costs, long processing time and lack of consumer interest mean fonio is not profitable for many Senegalese farmers, Cheikh Gueye of the Fonio Farmers’ Network said.

Most only grow enough to feed their families, and make their living from other grains instead, Gueye said.

Two years ago, Yolele teamed up with SOS SAHEL to build a supply chain for fonio and help Senegalese farmers make a living from the grain.

Yolele buys the grain directly from farmers recruited by SOS SAHEL, bypassing intermediaries.

Another challenge is finding a way to harvest fonio easily and cleanly, Thiam said.

Image: Raaf-Senegal

Yolele is building the world’s first commercial-scale fonio mill, due to open in the greater Dakar area by mid2020.

With new training in planting methods and technology, the company aims to grow its network of farmers to 7,000 families in Senegal by 2019, and 13,000 families in Mali by the following year.

That will help feed the growing appetite for fonio in places like the US and Europe.

In recent months, Yolele has been exporting a ton of fonio a week to keep up with demand, Thiam’s business partner, Philip Teverow, said.