What is fonio? Everything to know about this fluffy, nutty West African grain

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Read full article By Zoe Adjonyoh @ Today Photo Credit: Matt Russel

Who’s on the fonio? Me, calling for a break from quinoa.

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, where it’s been farmed for thousands of years. Also known as iburura and acha, the ancient grain native to West Africa and often considered the continent’s oldest cultivated cereal, has long been enjoyed in the mountainous regions of Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Mali and Nigeria. 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.

With the earthy and nutty taste of couscous and the creamy yet crunchy consistency of quinoa, fonio can be used just like other grains, sprinkled into salads, added to stews or soups, made into porridge or, when ground into flour, turned into baked goods. Naturally gluten-free, fonio is a great option for those with Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.

Despite being rich in nutrients and cultural heritage, fonio has been often undervalued, something that folks like chef Pierre Thiam, born and raised in Dakar, Senegal, and creator of Yolélé Foods, have endeavored to change. And they’ve succeeded, as fonio’s new status as a priority crop in West Africa has helped it find its way to grocery shelves around the world. Hoping to cast a spotlight on the reliable, drought-resistant grain, many others, including Adda Blooms, have aimed to usher fonio into global markets, focusing on health trends (see: fonio pilaf, fonio flour and more) and areas with high rates of food insecurity.

What is fonio?
A member of the millet family, fonio fits into two main categories: Digitaria ibura (known as black fonio, which grows in Nigeria, Togo and Benin) and Digitaria exilis (known as white fonio, which grows in Senegal, Chad and central Nigeria). While delicious, fonio has proven difficult to process, which is part of the reason it has thus far been kept from often-exploitative models of mass production. It is harvested by hand with a sickle to be threshed and separated from its stalk, after which many employ a mortar and pestle to sand or winnow the edible husk, then a multi-step washing and distilling process with water.

The reliable crop grows exceedingly well in poor, sandy soils and places beleaguered by land degradation (and only worsened by the climate crisis). The plant’s extensive root system pulls water from deep underground, protecting the crop from topsoil erosion and unexpected weather. It grows well in stretches of land from Sudan to Senegal, bordered by the Sahara Desert to the north and lush forests to the south, known as the Sahel region, whose hot, dry climate and sandy soils fail to support most other crops.

As a result, fonio supplies an important source of income for many smallholder farmers, who currently grow some 700,000 tons of it. Because of its high nutrient content and quick maturity (only 6 to 8 weeks), it’s sometimes referred to as “hungry rice,” utilized by farm families as a quick fix in the “hungry season” before the harvest of other staple grains, or distributed to battle malnutrition and food insecurity. As climate change continues to ravage regions like the Sahel, fonio will likely only continue to become more crucial its local, natural ecosystems.


Posted on

May 12, 2021

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