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Sarah Hutcherson headshot

3 Ways Fonio Is a Boost for Sustainable Agriculture


Fonio, an ancient grain from the semiarid regions of western and north-central Africa, is gaining popularity in the U.S. food market for its high fiber and protein content.

Companies are investing in partnerships and operations to distribute fonio globally. For example, Terra Ingredients, a supplier of organic and natural packaged foods, plans to open a processing plant in Senegal in 2020 to increase exports of fonio to thousands of tons annually. Such a processing plant is essential to expand fonio distribution since removing the fonio grain from the husk is labor-intensive. Yolélé Foods, a fonio supplier, plans to bring new fonio products to store shelves in 2020 in partnership with Whole Foods Market.  

Read on to learn how fonio’s rise bears well for not only our taste buds, but also for the farming communities that grow it and our planet’s well-being.  

Fonio’s flavor and health benefits make it easy for U.S. consumers to adopt 

The Washington Post and Cooking Light are among the publications that claim fonio is the “new quinoa.” Its nutritional content fits U.S. eaters’ growing demand for gluten-free and vegan options. Unlike other whole grains, fonio contains high levels of methionine and cysteine, amino acids associated with liver detoxification and collagen health, and holds a low glycemic index.

Restaurants’ adoption of fonio showcases its unique flavor and versatility. Erik Oberholtzer’s Tender Greens uses it for its tabbouleh, Fast Company reports. And Chef Pierre Thiam’s Teranga in Brooklyn serves up a beet and fonio salad, as well as a fonio vegetable super bowl. Thiam is known as “the chef behind America’s new favorite supergrain” since he’s spent more than 10 years introducing the grain to Americans through TED Talks, cookbooks and his fonio supplier company, Yolélé Foods.

“Thiam wanted to show Americans that the grain could be just as exciting as any other ingredient New York chefs were cooking with, while also creating an outlet for West African farmers to sell their harvests,” wrote Elazar Sontag in Bon Appetit.  

Fonio provides food security and income generation for farmers

Thiam’s Yolélé Foods and the U.K.’s Aduana Superfoods see rising global demand for fonio as an opportunity to support income generation and food security for rural communities along the Sahel belt in Africa. The potential for infrastructure and job growth in communities that grow this grain is significant as 95 percent of the 600,000 tons of fonio produced globally is consumed within the communities where it is grown.

Aduana Superfoods perpetuates responsible community development through its distribution model. The brand sources fonio directly from hundreds of women smallholders. It is committed to buying only 80 percent of the fonio produced by communities, leaving the rest for local consumption, according to Food Ingredients First.

In the past 20 years, researchers have only published 19 brief scientific articles on fonio despite its role in feeding many communities in the Sahel region. Thiam sees fonio’s low profile, until recently, as a result of many Africans’ belief that their native crops are inferior to imports, which is among the many long-term effects of colonization. The fonio boom could change this mindset as Western African countries become exporters, according to The Washington Post.

Fonio requires less water and can reduce supply chain risk

Fonio’s growing distribution is a win for sustainable agriculture. Its introduction into more diets diversifies our global reliance on 150 out of the 30,000 edible plant species. Having more diverse crop offerings mitigates supply chain risk and reduces the need for fertilizers, according to the Alpha Food Labs, a futurist food lab. 

Fonio often grows in harsh growing conditions — including droughts, acidic soil and floods — which is crucial since 2019 was recorded as the second hottest year on record. Fonio is a go-to for farmers, no matter what weather events occur during the growing season, since farmers don’t need to prepare the soil before planting fonio.

“There are so many challenges that these farmers are facing, but if the rainy season is not good, they know that at least one rain can guarantee them a harvest of fonio,” Thiam told The Epoch Times. “It’s important for the survival of the [Sahel] region.”

Image credit: James Courtwright/Wiki Commons

Sarah Hutcherson headshot

As a recent Bard MBA Sustainability graduate, Sarah is excited to be a contributing writer to TriplePundit to demonstrate how environmentally and socially responsible business is synonymous with stronger returns and a more sustainable world. She is most intrigued with how to foster regenerative food systems, develop inclusive and democratic workplaces and inspire responsible consumption.

Read more stories by Sarah Hutcherson