(Bloomberg) -- As a hunger crisis deepens in West Africa’s Sahel region, leaving almost 40 million people facing food insecurity, a native grain that’s been grown in much the same way for 5,000 years may offer a solution. Sometimes called a superfood, fonio is nutrient-rich and gluten-free, making it easy to digest. Plus, it has a low glycemic index, so it doesn’t cause blood sugar to spike. It’s a hardy crop, needing little fertilizer or attention to grow. And crucially, it doesn’t require much water, meaning it’s resilient to dry conditions, which climate change will intensify.
In the Sahel, the drought belt separating the Sahara desert to the north from forests to the south, fonio has long helped farmers make up for lean harvests. “I’ve grown fonio since I was a child,” says Kojo Kwame Gandi, an elderly man in the village of Chereponi in northeast Ghana. “My family of six can share one bowl of fonio and be full. But the young people want things easy—there’s too much work to do with fonio.”
Although fonio, which can be prepared like couscous or made into a porridge, is indigenous to West Africa, it’s become a neglected crop. Despite fonio’s many advantages, harvesting and processing the grain remain labor-intensive. Typically a dozen men and women bend over fields with sickles, moving from small farm to small farm to gather the crop. Then they stomp on the stalks to dehull the grain. In Mali, the stomping is the work of men; in northern Ghana, women may join in or even lead the activity.
Until recently, a global oversupply of rice and wheat presented ready and cheap alternatives. But Russia’s war in Ukraine and the disruption of supply chains that the pandemic has triggered are exposing the downside of West Africa’s reliance on food imports.
A few years ago, it looked as if fonio would get its quinoa moment when Pierre Thiam, a US-based chef from Senegal, championed it. Thiam added fonio to the menu at his New York restaurant chain, Teranga. He also co-founded Yolélé Foods to make fonio snacks and couscous, which are now sold at Whole Foods stores in the US.
Yet the supply of fonio remains too constrained for it to take off more broadly in the US — or indeed, at home. “There are 700,000 tons of fonio grown in the whole world, and all of it is grown in West Africa, and almost all of it is consumed within the communities that grow it,” says Philip Teverow, Yolélé co-founder and chief executive officer. Although the company has found a new customer base in America, “we believe the largest opportunity for fonio is in West Africa,” he says.
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For fonio to become a staple, a robust supply chain will be essential. That means improving farmers’ yields and modernizing how it’s processed. “Research has been lagging behind,” says Erika Styger, who runs the Climate-Resilient Farming Systems Program at Cornell University’s department of global development. Styger has been collaborating with Hamidou Guindo, an agronomist in Mali, for several years. After working with a local blacksmith to make a seeder and encouraging farmers to plant fonio in lines instead of scattering the seeds, as well as fertilizing fields with a little bit of manure, Styger and Guindo have helped growers improve yields by more than 80%, they say.
To increase the volume of grain that can be processed, Yolélé Foods plans to build a fonio mill in Mali in partnership with shea butter processor Mali Shi. The project received a $2 million grant from the US government this year. A Ghanaian social enterprise called Amaati Group, headed by Salma Abdulai, is also working to improve fonio processing, as well as supporting women fonio farmers in the north of the country.
The Sierra Leonean chef Fatmata Binta is another vocal proponent of the grain. Binta won the Basque Culinary World Prize for her venture, Dine on a Mat, a pop-up restaurant she’s taken around the world to showcase the cuisine of her nomadic Fulani people. Now she’s giving up big-city life in Accra and relocating to Tamale, in northern Ghana, to work with farmers and help build the fonio supply chain where the crop is grown. “The time for fonio is now,” Binta says.
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