Fonio as a Cash Crop: How an Ancient Grain Can Provide a Solution for Food Security in West Africa – And a Model for Biodiverse Agriculture Around the World
Most of the residents of our world rely on a handful of staple crops – namely, rice, corn and wheat – for sustenance. Today, more than ever before, this is a preposterous state of affairs. With the escalating risks of volatile geopolitics and climate change looming over our heads, this dependence makes humanity unacceptably vulnerable. What happens when poor countries can’t get enough wheat for bread – as is currently happening due to the Russian blockade of Ukraine? What happens when there’s not enough rain for a rice crop – something that’s becoming increasingly common around the world?
If we hope to achieve lasting global food security in the face of these growing challenges, it seems clear that food systems need to change. We need to turn to the biodiverse crops that have nourished generation after generation – before agricultural subsidies and other industry practices narrowed our options. Let’s take a look at one such crop in particular: fonio, an ancient West African grain.
The Life-Saving Potential of Fonio in West Africa
Fonio is a drought-tolerant grain that people across West Africa have been growing for over 5,000 years. Fonio is extremely easy to grow: People just scratch the soil’s surface at the first rain of the growing season, scatter seed and leave it alone. They know that no matter what challenges a given year’s weather may bring to other crops, there will be a fonio harvest. It will happen at just the right time—during the “hungry season,” when the previous year’s harvest is dwindling—and it will feed their families.
So fonio is in one way a form of crop insurance. But in very real terms it’s also a life saver—it prevents starvation. We think it can do more.
We are food entrepreneurs based in the United States. For the last five years, we have been cultivating awareness and demand for fonio globally. We have demonstrated that there is a consumer appetite in the United States for this ancient African grain that cooks in five minutes, and we have sparked interest among food manufacturers in using fonio as an alternative to other gluten-free grain ingredients.
We’re doing this because we think fonio can and should have a role in West African farmers’ lives beyond subsistence: As part of a rotation of rain-fed, underutilized crops, fonio can provide them with a livelihood. And we’re focusing on the West Africa region because, in our view, the commercialization of fonio should benefit the populations responsible for cultivating it over millennia – it is their intellectual property.
The Advantages of Fonio Over Other Staple Crops
Fonio is well-adapted to the Western Sahel, which extends from Senegal all the way to Chad. And it has several advantages over crops that are more widely supported by the international community and agribusiness. For example:
- It thrives without fertilizer as a rain-fed crop, even in the face of climate change: Relying on crops like fonio offers an alternative path to the overuse of irrigation that has depleted water tables in places like India and the American southwest.
- It is nutrient-dense relative to white rice – the most widely consumed grain in West Africa, and the grain most favored for investment by the development community: With far more protein, iron and fiber than rice, combined with a unique balance of amino acids and a low glycemic index (which makes it suitable for people with diabetes or similar health issues), fonio does more than fill bellies.
- It is easy to grow for smallholders: There is no need for equipment or inputs that are financially out of reach for these farmers – who are responsible for most agriculture in the region. Many aid initiatives focus on industrializing farming in developing countries, but the consolidation of small family farms into large industrial ones has resulted in the hollowing out of rural communities in countries like the U.S., as it became harder and harder to eke out a living when operating at small scale. Why would we encourage other countries to repeat our mistakes?
- It cooks in just five minutes: That’s convenient for consumers, of course – and it saves energy consumption. But it’s particularly significant in the Sahel, where people chop down scarce trees to burn as cooking fuel.
- It has physical properties that offer food manufacturers advantages over other grains: For instance, fonio flour has gelling and pasting properties that exceed those of other gluten-free flours. Its functionality makes it a compelling substitute for rice flour in many applications.
The Challenges – And Opportunity – of Shifting to Biodiverse Crops
But despite these key benefits, fonio faces challenges. One of the most significant is processability. While fonio is easy to grow, it is really hard to turn it into food. The grains are tiny, and each one comes off the plant covered in an inedible husk. Removing the husks and cleaning the grains, which are roughly the same size and color as grains of sand, is a fraught exercise. The difference between removing the husk and destroying the grain is just a small fraction of a millimeter. As a result, the post-harvest losses are staggering.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not easy to mill any grain, yet equipment manufacturers have devised solutions to do so efficiently. They just haven’t done it for fonio…yet. At our African food company Yolélé, we have taken it upon ourselves to make efficient fonio processing a reality.
With local agri-processing partners in West Africa, we are building a platform that connects smallholder farmers with local and global markets for biodiverse, climate-resilient crops like fonio. We leverage these partners’ sourcing operations and network—30,000 women who live in fonio-growing families—to supply a state-of-the-art processing plant with raw materials like fonio and (potentially) other densely nutritious and climate-resilient local crops. Then we transform these materials into fonio flour – and perhaps eventually fonio bran, starch and other ingredients – all of which meet the quality and volume requirements of even the largest food manufacturers and distributors.
Major food manufacturers know that formulating their products with fonio can help them achieve their environmental and social Sustainable Development Goals. The only thing inhibiting them from acting is a reliable supply.
By addressing that issue—reliability—the agri-processing sector can activate the engine of commerce to provide smallholder farmers with both a new income opportunity and a financial motive for expanding truly regenerative agricultural processes. We are building and operating a replicable model that can be applied across West Africa. But we believe this model can also be used to encourage environmentally and financially sustainable agriculture all over the world — it just needs to be applied to the traditional crops that are local to other regions. We hope others will join in this effort — and in the broader global effort to shift the world’s food demand towards biodiverse staple crops.
Photos courtesy of Yolélé.