A stand of fonio-based products produced in Benin and sold at a fair in Abidjan (Côte d  'Ivoire).
A stand of fonio-based products produced in Benin and sold at a fair in Abidjan (Ivory Coast). (ISSOUF SANOGO / hooly News)

Fonio is probably the oldest cereal cultivated in West Africa. It is said to have been cultivated over 5,000 years ago. But it’s only been ten years since she had her world day.

Fonio resembles couscous semolina or rather, once blanched, very small grains of rice, very light. Some find it a nutty taste.

To transform this thousand-year-old cereal, so above all, peel it, cut stems have to be threshed after harvest and trodden under foot for hours to separate the grain which will then be stored in the attic. A tedious process despite the encouragement and music of the griots who sometimes assist in operations in the villages.

Over time, fonio has therefore been considered a secondary crop, abandoned in favor of rice, which is an imported crop. It was only with the arrival of the first shelling and crushing machines in the early 2000s that its cultivation regained favor in the eyes of farmers.

Fonio grows in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, but the main producing country is Guinea. President Alpha Condé, who has made agriculture a national issue with a view to the country’s food self-sufficiency, also regularly visits factories. Over the past five years, fonio production has increased by 66% in the country which exports more than 500,000 tonnes per year, and the organic sector is developing, as in Togo.

It is above all exports that boost the market: gluten-free, rich in amino acids, fonio has the image of a “healthy” food and everything to dethrone quinoa in the pantheon of seed eaters. Sales of gluten-free items in particular are growing exponentially in the United States (+ 16.4% since 2013). In Africa, the old culture of the poor has become a source of pride for the peasants, and the cultivated areas are increasing.

Its tireless ambassador is a Senegalese leader, Pierre Thiam, who lives in New York. Restaurant on 5th avenue, import company (Yolélé Foods), cookbook, cooking lesson on television … Fonio, according to Pierre Thiam, has a great future. “Fonio can have a real impact on challenges such as food insecurity, poverty, lack of opportunities”, defends the leader.

It’s hardy, drought tolerant, doesn’t need a lot of water, and grows absolutely everywhere. So easy to grow, it’s been nicknamed “the seed of the sloth”. Since the world is rediscovering fonio today, we must use this potential, industrialize production and offer new perspectives to the inhabitants of the Sahel. A cereal to be rehabilitated to honor this legend of the Dogon people, in Mali, who says that the entire universe sprouted from a fonio seed.