Is Fonio the Ancient Grain of the Future?

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Read full article By Lisa Held @ Civil Eats Photo Credit: Civil Eats

Yolélé hopes this nutritious, climate crisis-ready crop will compete with quinoa globally, while supporting smallholder farms in West Africa.

Multinational corporations (and foundations) generally take one approach to agricultural development in Africa. They encourage farmers to grow high-yield varieties of crops—mostly corn—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. And the same negative environmental impacts associated with industrial agriculture in the U.S., including the loss of biodiversity and water contamination, follow. Overall, these efforts rarely decrease hunger or make farmers more financially secure.

Pierre Thiam and Philip Teverow take a different tack.

Pierre Thiam. (Photo courtesy of Yolélé, photo credit: Sara Costa)
Pierre Thiam. (Photo courtesy of Yolélé, photo credit: Sara Costa)

Thiam was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal, before gaining renown as a chef in New York City. In a 2017 TED talk, he explained how, while conducting cookbook research in Senegal, he came across a form of millet called fonio, which was still grown by smallholder farmers all over West Africa but had nearly disappeared from the urban diet.

“It turns out that fonio had been cultivated for more than 5,000 years,” Thiam says. “I became more interested in this grain that was deemed worth taking to the afterlife by early Egyptians.”

The more he learned, the more potential he saw. Fonio is basically a climate crisis-ready crop; it grows in poor soils in drought conditions with little to no inputs. Those who grow it help preserve agricultural biodiversity and cultural identity in West African countries. And it’s a nutrient-dense, naturally gluten-free ancient grain—perfectly suited to serve both local food security and Western health trends.

In 2017, he teamed up with Teverow, a food industry veteran who ran the trendsetting Dean & DeLuca brand for 13 years, to create Yolélé, a company that would buy fonio from smallholder farmers, build a local supply chain, and export it around the world. The company has gotten some attention over the years and its products are now sold at Whole Foods. But its overall reach has remained small because fonio is incredibly difficult to process, and the infrastructure to do so at a large scale doesn’t exist.

That’s about to change. Yolélé has been developing a proprietary processing system and is set to open its own plant in Mali in the first quarter of 2022. “Today’s fonio processors can produce about one ton of fonio per day,” Teverow told Civil Eats. “Our system will produce three tons per hour.” It will also cut high levels of food waste out of the supply chain.

At the same time, another company, Terra Ingredients, is working on a state-of-the-art fonio processing facility in Senegal. Its progress was delayed by the pandemic but will soon move ahead. New fonio products are also emerging: Yolélé just launched Florence Fabricant-approved fonio pilafs, while Iya Foods debuted fonio flour (made with Terra’s fonio).

All of this movement comes at a critical time for West African countries. During the pandemic, border closures disrupted some relied-upon food imports like rice, wheat, and fresh produce, and millions of people have been thrown further into poverty. In the Sahel region, where most fonio is grown, a recent report found 17 million people were in need of emergency food assistance during the summer months and another 51 million were on the verge of following.

With that context in mind, Thiam and Teverow recently spoke with Civil Eats to share more about the past and future of fonio.

Who is growing fonio for you, and how are they doing it?

Teverow: We’re working with about 1,500 farmers [in West Africa]. The farms are very small. On average, they’re growing on half a hectare [about 1.2 acres]. In most cases, the families have been growing fonio for themselves. What we’re doing differently is asking them to grow for us, not as a feed-the-family crop only, but also as a way to get some income.

Generally, because fonio has been a feed-the-family kind of crop, they don’t have inputs. As a matter of traditional practice, there are inputs sometimes applied, but it thrives on its own. In fact, it responds poorly to the application of fertilizers, so there’s a general reluctance to apply anything. We’re looking for organic fonio and are working with farmers to use organic compost applied in a moderate way.


Posted on

January 6, 2021

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