Fonio: A Lost but Found Climate Crisis West African Grain

Many natural ingredients originate from the African continent. Some, like shea butter, are already well established. Many, like baobab, moringa and Fonio are becoming popular because of their high nutrient content. This seems like a great exporting opportunity, unfortunately exporters in developing countries face many difficulties, such as regulations and distribution.

Fonio: Super grain
Fonio: Super grain

On the other hand, Multinational corporations generally take one approach to agricultural development in Africa. They encourage farmers to grow high-yield varieties of crops, mostly developed in the U.S. and Europe, using expensive seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. In many cases, the crops fail to thrive due to the differences in climates and soils. Overall, these efforts rarely decrease hunger or make farmers more financially secure.

Fonio An Indigenous African Grain

Although a seed, Fonio is often classified and used as a grain. It is a type of millet that has been cultivated for thousands of years by west Africans across the dry savannas. Despite its unpopularity, it still remains important in certain regions of Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Nigeria. Each year West African farmers devote approximately 300,000 hectares to cultivation.

A member of the millet family, fonio is divided into two main types:

  • Digitaria iburua. This white grain has black or brown spikelet and grows mainly in parts of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. White fonio is the most widely consumed.
  • Digitaria exilis. This white grain grows from Senegal to Chad, as well as in central Nigeria. It’s the most commonly eaten of the two varieties and more readily available outside Africa.

Misunderstood as the hungry rice.

Fonio has many names. In Nigeria it is called Acha. Growing up, we only ate Acha when there was scarcity of rice or oats. It was never the preferred choice. Part of the reason for this neglect is that the plant has been misunderstood by scientists and other decision makers. It is usually referred to as “hungry rice,” in many European countries. Despite its ancient heritage and importance, knowledge of fonio’s evolution, origin, distribution, and genetic diversity remains scant even within West Africa. The crop has received but a fraction of the attention accorded to sorghum, pearl millet, and maize, and a mere trifle considering its importance in the rural economy and its potential for increasing the food supply.

Significance of Fonio

  • Fonio has been lauded by many as a “climate crisis-ready crop,” a superfood replacement for quinoa and a promising way to support smallholder farmers in West Africa.
  • Rich in heritage and full of potential, millets are a sustainable, nutritious and under-valued food source.
  • In regions aggravated by climate change with nutrient-deficient soils or drought conditions where little can grow, fonio flourishes and helps preserve biodiversity, offering hope in the face of the changing climate.
  •  Naturally gluten-free, fonio is a great option for those with Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.
  • For thousands of years, it has been cultivated without fertilizer and pesticides. That makes it easy to grow it organically, without extra cost for the farmers.
  • For thousands of years, it has been cultivated without fertilizer and pesticides. That makes it easy to grow it organically, without extra cost for the farmers.

The United Nations General Assembly at its 75th session in March 2021 declared 2023 the International Year of Millets (IYM 2023). 

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that Fonio has the highest calcium content of all grains. This may make it a good choice for those who don’t consume dairy, such as vegans or individuals with lactose intolerance. The celebration of the #IYM2023 will be an opportunity to raise awareness of, and direct policy attention to the nutritional and health benefits of millets and their suitability for cultivation under adverse and changing climatic conditions. The year will also promote the sustainable production of millets, while highlighting their potential to provide new sustainable market opportunities for producers.

Despite being rich in nutrients and cultural heritage, Fonio has been often undervalued. Not only does this crop deserve much greater recognition, but it also has a big future in the grain- cereal industry. This creates a trade product with opportunities for export and a better income locally.

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2023: A year of positive new beginnings

As we begin a new year, I have been reflecting so much on 2022 and I am very optimistic that 2023 will come with some gain realization.

I have been traveling around major cities in America since November and meeting with buyers of commodities such as Hibiscus flower, Ginger and Moringa. Cities around the world have melting pots, and there are several foods you find in cities like New York that can be traced to other cultures. New York is a warm, friendly and culturally diverse city. The cultural diversity in New York is so common that you can notice it just by walking around. From the food to the clothing stores, you will be sure to see people of different ethnic backgrounds. As a result of more than 400 years of immigrant history, America has become the richest gastronomy in the world. From every immigrant culture came new foods and new ways to cook it, all the while maintaining a revered connection to the way it was done back in the old country.

Telling Farm Stories in Africa

It is somewhat different for West African cuisines, if you want to grab cup of Kunu (is a non-alcoholic Nigerian beverageor a plate of Jollof rice you will have to walk into an African restaurant. How do we introduce West African flavors to a wider palate? One way is to incorporate them into everyday foods through West African-style simmer sauces, spices, seasonings, herbs and whole foods.

This year, I will be working with small scale food processors who are not recycling the same set of flavors consumers have been having for a hundred years. Something exciting, bold, providing a new experience, and redefining what is made in Africa. While I am pushing for trade in more processed commodities, I will continue trading raw commodities and supporting startups in their market expansion and fundraising drive. I closed 2022 with contracts to be fulfilled in the first quarter of this year. I am lucky and blessed to have a network of great suppliers in Nigeria, Ghana and Benin but access to trade finance and compliance remains a huge challenge. Despite a string of financial crises and steepness in the global economy, there has been a lot of success in the fundraising drive for Africa in the last quarter of 2022.

  • In November, the IFC launched a new $225 million platform to strengthen venture capital ecosystems and invest in early-stage companies addressing development challenges through technological innovations in climate, health care, education, agriculture, e-commerce, and other sectors in Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, and Pakistan.
  • In December, ADF, the concessional window of the African Development Bank Group, providing grants and soft loans to the continent’s low-income countries agreed to commit a total package of $8.9 billion to its 2023 to 2025 financing cycle. It is a strong endorsement of the African Development Fund and its impact in tackling the continent’s multiple development needs, including recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, the effects of climate change, fragility, debt, and economic vulnerabilities.
  • Also in December, Ventures Platform Fund a pan-African VC firm championing the next generation of African technology entrepreneurs, announced the final close of its early-stage and intercontinental fund, at $46M.

I am optimistic that the fund will trickle down to the entrepreneurs working at the grassroot to support farmers. Smallholder farmers are the foundation for food security, any technology that doesn’t get to them only enriches the wealthy and increases the wealth-poverty gap.

Wishing you a happy new year filled with positivity, love and happiness.