Tiny fonio cereal may hold big answers in food crisis

Despite growing for centuries in some of the driest, toughest agricultural zones of West Africa, the fonio cereal has been neglected by most agricultural development programmes, according to the World Bank. But skyrocketing rice price increases that have slammed rice-dependent West Africa and declining profits in other cash crops like cotton have some local producers turning back to the ancient cereal.

But Olivier Durand with the World Bank in Mali told IRIN fonio has some hurdles to clear before reaching store shelves: “Its main drawback is the very difficult post-harvest process, as it is a very small grain. There's a market for pre-cooked fonio, but prices are still pretty high due to the low productive post-harvest process.”

The average cost for a 1-kg package of pre-cooked fonio is US$2, twice as much as raw fonio, according to the US-funded Economic Growth Programme, which is trying to revive fonio production in Senegal. This price is about as twice as expensive as one kilo of the more commonly-consumed, but less protein-packed, rice.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates an annual production of about 250,000 tons of fonio grown on 380,000 hectares of land in lead-producing country Guinea, followed by Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

But producers in other countries are trying to get in.


In Senegal, the mostly female cooperative, Yakaar Niani Wulli [the hope of villages Niani and Wulli, in the national Wolof language] of small-scale farmers in southern Senegal has been trying to plant and sell fonio.

The cereal fell out of vogue when families had more money to buy rice imports, said organic food biochemist Malik N’diaye with the Senegalese non-profit Environment, Development Action in the Third World (ENDA).

Because of its smaller-than-couscous size, de-husking and cleaning can take up to five poundings, an estimated one hour to mill less than 2kg. Fonio evokes rural images of a woman standing over a mortar pounding the seeds with sand, and then – sometimes unsuccessfully – separating sand from the grains.

But the World Bank’s Durand said relief is on the way: “New techniques will improve the productivity while reducing the work hardship for women.” He added the food crisis may give overlooked cereals like fonio more attention.

“My fear with fashion and ‘revivals,’ said Durand, “[is] that one will consider this is one [and only] solution, the key revolution and miracle, [but it is]…one among other solutions to the answer the food security issue.”

FAO reports rice prices quadrupling worldwide in the past two years. In West Africa, only Burkina Faso is a cereal exporter, according to the 2008 Global Hunger Index, which stated hunger levels are higher in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world.

ENDA’s Ndiaye told IRIN this is the same area where fonio freely grows: “Fonio can grow in arid zones, a plus for the drought and famine-prone Sahel.”

Finding a market

In 2007, the US-based Economic Growth Programme facilitated a tasting event of organic fonio in Koussanar, the Senegalese rural birthplace of the cereal located about 400km east of the capital Dakar. An American export company bought two tons of the pre-cooked fonio cereal from the federation, which was the federation’s lone export last year.

The production group is expected to harvest 20 tons from 60 hectares in 2008, with 10 tons to be sold and the other half reserved for local consumption.

The federation of about 2,000 members is trying to buy a husking machine to make their work quicker and to increase production, according to ENDA.

ENDA’S N’diaye told IRIN the time has come for people both in and out of West Africa to rethink the cereal: “It may be arcane because it has been around for so long, but it has medicinal properties able to fight diabetes, which has sparked recent interest.”

According to the French agricultural research centre working for international development (CIRAD), fonio is an amino-packed, easily digestible, easy-to-grow desert food.

N’diaye said locally, fonio is known mostly as the first dish a newlywed wife is required to cook for her husband. But it could be much more, he said: “It should also be known as a nutritious, protein-packed organic speciality good. It is old, but also new.”