The fluffy sand-like supergrain to challenge quinoa
By some accounts fonio has been grown for more than 5,000 years but it remains the preserve of subsistence farmers – the vast majority of the crop is consumed by its growers. Cultivation methods have changed very little over the years.
First to harvest
This ancient grain, Digitaria exilis, also known as ‘hungry rice’ – or acha in Nigeria – is a fast-maturing crop that is easy to cultivate, but difficult and labour-intensive to harvest as it requires vigorous separating and cleaning.
Fonio is grown in the Sahel region of West Africa, from Senegal on the west coast to the northern tip of Cameroon. The only countries in the region where it does not grow are Mauritania, where it is too dry, and Liberia, where it is too wet.
As well as containing nearly five times as much protein as brown rice, and more than three times the fibre, fonio contains high levels of iron, plus the amino acids methionine and cystine, which are required for growth and tissue repair. It is gluten-free and easily digestible, and has a low glycaemic index, making it ideal for diabetics.
As a culinary ingredient, fonio is extremely versatile. It can be eaten in the same way as rice or cous cous, or ground into flour to make bread, cakes or polenta. Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam has published a book of recipes to help popularise the grain in the US.
Around 600,000 tonnes of fonio are grown each year. By establishing a US market, creating a commercial supply chain and improving agricultural methods, US food firms hope to double that.
The top fonio producing countries in 2015 were Guinea, with 474,000 tonnes, Nigeria (82,000), Mali (20,300), Ivory Coast (19,200) and Burkina Faso (13,100). The average yield is about 870kg per hectare.
Encouraging West African farmers to grow more of the crop will not be plain sailing. It is considered by many to be ‘country people food,’ plus it is known to be tough to process – and the few machines available to help are costly.
What They Say
“Fonio is the seed of the universe”
Anonymous, proverb of the Dogon ethnic group in Mali, some tribes of which purportedly date back more than 5,000 years
“If you can create a market for this local crop which isn’t grown anywhere else but this area, it can create economic opportunity where there isn’t any at the moment. For these people, it could provide something to live for.”
Philip Teverow, CEO of Yolele Foods, a US company selling Fonio
“With climate departure comes an increase in climate variability. In environments that are very climate-dependent, crops that produce even in a bad year are going to matter more.”
Christopher Field, Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment
Fonio is drought-resistant, protein-rich and easy to cook; it’s no wonder it has been hailed as “the new quinoa” by New York foodies. The West seems keen to embrace it, but its supply chain is fragmented. The small proportion sold by its remote smallholder farmers is bought by travelling traders on motorbikes, who take it to towns to be aggregated, then someone else delivers it to a market town for the few existing commercial buyers. Subsequently, there is no way of knowing its provenance. Buyers hope to change that by equipping farmers to be part of traceable supply chains, promoting more efficient farming methods and increasing output. As well as the economic injection to the Sahel region from exports, the resulting jobs from labour, logistics and processing would be welcome