Fonio is increasingly in demand in specialty markets overseas ©Richard Nyberg/USAID
Fonio is increasingly in demand in specialty markets overseas ©Richard Nyberg/USAID

The ancient grain that could transform West African fortunes

13 September 2018

For more than 5,000 years, the little-known fonio grain has been a staple in West Africa. Similar in taste and consistency to South American quinoa, it is grown by smallholder farmers from Senegal all the way to northern Cameroon. Its resistance to drought has made it an important crop, albeit with low yields and little commercial value.

But now it has been hailed as potentially “transformational” for the economy of the region, with one US start-up trying to create an overseas commercial market for the grain. In doing so, its founders hope to establish a supply chain and bring business opportunities to a region which has a poverty rate of more than 50% in some countries.

Phillip Teverow, chief executive of the start-up Yolele Foods, told SM fonio has been grown for so long because it is so easy to cultivate. “It thrives in marginal soil. Farmers know that whatever weather conditions they face and whatever might happen to the other crops, the fonio will come in,” he said.

It is also high in protein, easy to prepare and gluten-free, making it perfect for the Western food market, he continued.

But of the estimated 600,00 tonnes grown every year, the vast majority is consumed by the people who grow it, he said. “What we are trying to do is create a commercial market for what has been a subsistence grain.”

As a result, the fonio supply chain is highly fragmented.

The remote smallholder growers are unable bring it to market, said Teverow. Instead, someone travels to them on a motorbike and buys the grain at a low price.

It is then brought to a town to be aggregated, and someone else will bring it to a market town for the few existing commercial buyers. Subsequently, there is no way of knowing its provenance.

But with the help of NGO SOS Sahel, which works on the ground in the area, Teverow hopes to train and equip smallholder farmers to be part of commercial, traceable supply chains, promoting more efficient farming methods and increasing output.

If Yolele's plan to double West African fonio production comes to fruition, this could mean a huge shot in the arm for the economy. With every tonne selling for roughly $1,000, it could be as much as $1.2bn.

“Not only this, but the jobs and infrastructure which come with this would make a serious difference to unemployment in these countries,” said Teverow.

There has, Teverow admitted, been resistance to the commercialisation of ancient growing methods in some areas. “But if we can show people how great the economic opportunity is around this grain, I’m sure they’ll come round,” he said. “It's not a matter of increasing farmers’ income by 20%, it's a matter of doubling or tripling income. That's what we're aiming for.

“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.”

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