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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