Fonio, also known as "acha" or "hungry rice," is a type of grain that belongs to the millet family of cultivated grasses in the Digitaria genus. It is indigenous to and a staple food in parts of West Africa - Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and Nigeria – where it has been cultivated and consumed by many local communities for centuries.
Fonio has never really interested people outside West Africa …until very recently. Even in urban parts of countries like Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Ghana where trade value chains have shrunk food choices down to a small list of items – rice, beans, yams, etc.- people do not necessarily know about fonio that much either. It is consumed mainly in the countryside where subsistence smallholder producers have been growing and eating it the same way for centuries.
However, due to a growing demand for “superfoods”, fonio has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight.
Fonio is gaining popularity globally due to its exceptional nutritional properties and potential for sustainable agriculture. It is gluten-free and has a low glycemic index. It takes less than two months to grow from planting to harvesting. It offers excellent nutritional values, including complex carbohydrates, essential amino acids, dietary fiber, B-vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc, and calcium.
Fonio can be used in various culinary applications, much like other grains. It can be cooked as a whole grain, milled into flour for baking, used in porridge, or added to soups and stews.
Fonio thrives in semi-arid regions with poor soils and is well-adapted to harsh climatic conditions, making it an important crop for food security.
As the Sahel becomes more arid, crops like fonio are emerging as natural carbohydrate choices because they are resistant to drought conditions and, because smallholder farmers have been selecting and experimenting with different varieties for centuries, the science to grow them under hot and dry conditions is readily available.
In the current global context following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the collapse of the wheat exports deal between the two countries in 2023, fonio is a natural choice that West and Central African countries can turn to in order to guarantee food security. Already, there is a big push by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to become self-sufficient in rice. It would be a good idea for ECOWAS to also adopt a millets-fonio plan.
With climate change, many European Union countries are replacing crops that require a lot of water to grow with millet and other “superfoods”. Last year for example, France produced 390 metric tons of sorghum and about 70 tonnes of millet, with demand outpacing supply. Quinoa came in a distant third with 3000 tonnes. With increased production, countries of the Sahel region can meet France’s growing grain needs. Fonio producing countries should work with smallholder producers to improve supply for local and, (why not?), international consumers.
Dr. Ndongo Samba Sylla believes that food self-sufficiency based on short value chain indigenous choices is really what all African countries should be investing in right now:
“African countries need to start growing more of their own food instead of shipping out large sums of valuable foreign reserves to import rice every year.”
That is music to the ears of smallholder producers in areas like Kedougou on the Senegal-Guinea Bissau border. Smallholders vow that they can meet the needs of large agglomerations like Dakar and beyond. All they require is greater support from government departments. Recently, Senegal President Macky Sall confessed that he has only started paying attention to fonio recently when international media started talking about it.
Fortunately, Senegal already has a Fonio Day where more people can discover and enjoy fonio cooked in different ways: baguettes, croissants, fufu, doughnuts, with rice, etc. Smallholder farmers like Yoro Diallo, Mballou Sanokho and Fanta Diakhité are also grateful that engineer Sanoussi Diakhité has invented a machine that hulls tonnes of fonio within minutes, unlike traditional methods that take up a lot of time to dehusk a few grains.