Senegal hopes it has the next quinoa

Rice farmers in Senegal may be able to diversify their crops if demand for fonio increases.
Rice farmers in Senegal may be able to diversify their crops if demand for fonio increases.
Image: Reuters/Normand Blouin
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According to Mali’s Dogon people, fonio, a nutty grain cultivated in West Africa, was once “the seed of the universe.” The foremost text on Dogon philosophy, Conversations with Ogotemêlli, describes how the Dogon believed that the entire world originated from a single fonio grain.

Now Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam wants this “seed of the universe” to become the next universally beloved grain.

Thiam’s company, Yolélé Foods, imports fonio to the United States. He is on a mission to build a global supply chain for the grain, starting with Senegal’s first commercial scale fonio mill, which he aims to have running by 2020.

For Thiam, Dogon mythology is just one example of how fonio is regarded as a “miracle grain” by those who cultivate it. He believes that exporting fonio could be life-changing for West African farmers. “If Yolélé’s mission is successful, some of the world’s poorest people can become exporters of commodities,” Thiam says. “It can turn the situation around from people receiving aid to mastering their destiny and producing a crop that they can sell to the rest of the world.”

Fonio is remarkable in many respects, and has rich cultural significance. It is one of Africa’s oldest grains, with the first references to it dating back to 14th century scripts of Arab travelers in West Africa. In parts of Senegal, growing fonio is still seen as a way of warding off evil.

The grain is cultivated across the Sahel region—from Senegal and Guinea to Chad and the northern regions of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. Certain varieties of fonio, such as the white fonio grains Yolélé exports, are drought-resistant, an important attribute in a region vulnerable to drought and famine.

Thiam’s Fonio Salad
Thiam’s Fonio Salad
Image: Evan Sung

Fonio is gluten-free and rich in amino acids almost deficient in major cereals (pdf) like rice and wheat. In appearance and texture, it is a cross between couscous and quinoa, with a subtle nutty flavor. It is traditionally used in salads, stews, porridges, and can also be ground into flour.

Despite its many positive attributes, not many people have paid attention to fonio, even in countries to which it is indigenous. In Guinea, for example, fonio is consumed less than foreign grains such as white rice, according to a study from the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development. Thiam says fonio’s reputation as “country-people food” in Senegal has contributed to why it is under appreciated.

History is partly to blame, says ecologist Stephen Woods of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences.  In the colonies, growing fonio was discouraged because the French and English had no use for it. Crops like peanuts and cotton, on the other hand, were highly valued in Europe, so institutions were built up around them.

Thiam has had some success getting fonio attention: Bloomberg recently dubbed it a “super grain,” and Yolélé Foods has distribution agreements with Whole Foods, Amazon, and the online organic food marketplace Thrive Market.

But fonio will have to overcome a few challenges before it can truly catch on.

Firstly, fonio is not the most productive grain to harvest, Woods notes, as it yields less than other crops.

To combat this challenge, Yolélé Foods has partnered with Cornell University to test methods to increase fonio yields in Senegal, Mali, and Guinea. The company is experimenting with a new low-water method of planting that uses younger seedlings, singly spaced and typically hand-weeded with a special tool. According to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, this method, while labor-intensive, has in some cases increased yields of rice and other crops such as wheat and sugarcane  20 to 50% or more, reduced seed use by 80-90%, and resulted in up to 50% water savings. Thiam says that the tests have seen fonio yields double.

A tiny grain covered in a husk, fonio is also quite difficult to process. Preparing the grain for cooking traditionally took hours of manual pounding and winnowing.

Sanoussi Diakite, a Senegalese inventor, created the first machine for husking the grain 25 years ago. This helped speed up the process, but the machine’s capacity is still not at the level needed for industrial production. Yolélé Foods is working on its own custom fonio-processing machines to hopefully speed up the husking process.

Should Yolélé succeed, the gluten-free desires (paywall) of the West have some concerned that fonio will go down the road of mega-popular grains like quinoa, which has become too expensive for some of its own producers, for whom it was once a staple food.

Cognizant of these risks, Yolélé hopes to create a supply chain that increases the net income for West African farmers that own small plots of land, instead of increasing the cost of what they grow. It has partnered with SOS Sahel, a non-profit focused on food security and nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa, to train local farmers on how to farm the grain and organize the collection and transportation of crops to the processing mill in Senegal.

Despite the challenges it faces, there is no denying the grain’s significance. ”The fact that fonio is resilient, has stuck around for 5,000 years in the midst of cultural, economic and ecological changes, speaks a lot to what the seed means,” Woods says. “Not only is it an important crop for farmers to diversify their portfolios, but it is an important part of Senegal’s heritage.”