Jean-Pierre Kamara took a handful of small seeds and showered them over the freshly ploughed land near his village located in Senegal’s southern foothills.
More clay dirt is being loosened for sowing by a group of young guys in front of him, while aged villagers follow behind and rake the soil back over the seeds.
The village works conscientiously as a unit to grow fonio (one of the oldest cultivated grains in Africa), an invaluable grain that is essential to their nutrition and may be harvested in as short as six weeks. They break only at midday to replenish peanuts and palm wine.
Bedik people say that despite the process of cultivating fonio being a laborious one it is easy and reliable.
They pointed out that it is grown naturally, unlike mainstream crops such as rice and wheat, which is much harder to grow.
Additionally, compared to other grains, fonio can be stored for a much longer period of time, is nutritive, delicious, and climate-adapted.
During an interaction with The Guardian, Kamara said, “If you put in front of me some fonio and also something made of maize, I’ll push aside the other because the fonio is much healthier. There are no chemicals used; it just grows naturally and then we harvest it. We don’t add anything.”
Academics and policymakers are now advocating for fonio to be adopted more extensively in Africa in order to increase food security, along with other native foods like Ethiopia’s teff, as well as cassava and various millets and legumes.
Following the UN’s stern warning that the countries located in the Horn of Africa are facing extreme hunger, this move comes into play.
Many others have been hugely impacted by increasing wheat prices caused due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Recently, International Finance Corporation MD Makhtar Diop stated that these crops were underutilized and need research, marketing, and massive investment.
These indigenous foods could lessen the dependence of the continent on imported wheat, rice, and maize, which are currently the main mainstays of most people’s diets but typically do not grow well in Africa. These traditional foods have greater nutritional values and are drought resistant.
Because of the fact that so little of the continent is suitable for cultivating the crop, the African Development Bank’s proposal to increase food security by investing $1 billion in growing wheat in Africa has been met with skepticism.
The main ingredient of Senegal’s current diet is its ability to import around 70% of its rice. Four regions alone contribute 436,000 tonnes of domestically cultivated rice.
Senegal, which does not grow wheat, in 2020, contributed only 2% of its imports. Wheat made up 2% of Senegal’s imports in 2020 as it is not grown there.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2019, Senegal produced just around 5,100 tonnes of fonio with most of the contribution coming from around the south-eastern Kédougou region. However, there are initiatives taken to increase production. Senegal’s neighbours Guinea produces 530,000 tonnes of grain.
Forgotten Crops Society co-founder and agronomist Michel Ghanem feels that more investment needs to come in for these foods that have been neglected.
Ghanem said, “In sub-Saharan Africa, the diets were not wheat-based. They’re shifting; they’re becoming wheat-based, unfortunately, which is leading to non-communicable diseases, obesity, and all sorts.”
“You have lots of indigenous crops – like teff, fonio, sorghum – that people still eat today but have been neglected by funding agencies, the international research organisations, but definitely not by consumers. And it’s now that we should invest in these because they could close that [food] gap,” he added.
Researchers believe that these foods that have been neglected for ages have several nutritional benefits and possess important micronutrients as well.
The US National Research Council conducted a study on neglected African crops in the 1990s and discovered that while teff was high in protein, amino acids, and iron, fonio and finger millet were rich in the critical amino acid methionine, which is frequently missing in western diets.
Western researchers for long had misunderstood Fonio and labelled it as ‘hungry rice’ as it was consumed more during the food scarcity periods because of its reliable and quick growth.
In addition to providing far greater hunger satisfaction than the predominant grains, fonio, according to Kamara, also has a nuttier flavour and texture that people enjoy.
Kamara said, “During festivals, when we have lots of guests and want to honour someone, we give them fonio – it’s a privilege.”
Slow Food International vice-president Edie Mukiibi pointed out that the destruction of biodiversity in agriculture was because colonialism forced “monoculture” farming on Africa and other colonised areas.
According to Mukiibi, during colonialism, significant areas of land were taken over for plantations that produced cash crops like sugar, tea, and cocoa for export, while during the “green revolution” of the 20th century, the notion of growing high-yield grains to fight starvation was supported.
Mukiibi said, “The plantations kept on growing, supported by the colonial governments in the global south, and they did not contribute to biodiversity. They cleared large areas of diverse land, which initially was covered by the traditional intercropped African farming systems or the ‘milpa’ systems in Latin America, like in Mexico.”
As people could no longer feed on the area cleared for the crops, Mukiibi continues, they changed their diets.
According to Mukiibi, indigenous grains are much better suited to surviving when planted alongside other crops than popular imports, which necessitate ecosystem adaptation to maintain the proper conditions.
The doctors have recommended indigenous food to diabetic patients, while health food brands and aid organisations have also been promoting them.
Fonio has recently gained in popularity and may now be found on restaurant menus in the more affluent areas of Senegal’s capital Dakar.
Export supporters believe that by increasing the crop’s profitability, farmers will be motivated to cultivate more fonio.
New York-based Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam, who co-founded Yolélé to buy the grain from smallholder farmers and market it as a “superfood” in the west, has been one of the most vocal proponents of fonio.
Yolélé works with SOS Sahel, an aid organisation that assists farmers in enhancing their lands and raising fonio output in an effort to fight unemployment in the area. By 2024, the NGO hopes to have increased production by 900 tonnes.
Aissatou Ndiaye, 75, who cultivates fonio on 50 hectares of land close to Kédougou and imports it from Mali and Guinea for sale, claims that she has benefited from NGO assistance and funding, but she is worried that some of the new interest is displacing locals from their source of income.
Ndiaye said, “There is a European buyer who comes here with big containers, fills it with the harvest from their local partners, and sells it all abroad. It should be feeding the population here. I can’t support them taking everything and selling it outside. That’s not fair. It’s not helping the farmers.”
“There is big potential for fonio growing, you can grow as much as you want, the yield is much better than rice or maize – the only problem is that we need help improving the processing for harvest. I would like to grow more than I do, but I don’t have the machinery to harvest anymore,” she added.
Ndiaye is aware that more research will be needed to ascertain whether technology can make the labor-intensive process of cutting fonio grass and removing the husks less onerous. However, she is concerned that scientists would focus on genetically modifying the grain to ensure higher yields.
“We need more research, but they shouldn’t spoil it or damage it; they shouldn’t add anything to it. It might seem good to increase the yield but it’s not good for the nutrition. Fonio is natural – I want it to be protected and not to be spoiled so it becomes like other foods,” she concluded.
Fonio: The indigenous crop
The earliest cereal in Africa was developed using a heritage grain called fonio. It is a staple food that originated in West Africa and is primarily consumed in the hilly regions of nations like Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Nigeria. Fonio is also known as acha, iburura, and hungry rice.
Fonio can be used in the same ways as other grains, such as in salads, stews, soups, porridge, and baked goods when ground into flour. It has the earthy and nutty flavour of couscous and the creamy yet crunchy texture of quinoa.
Fonio is one of the most nutrient-dense grains in the world and is naturally gluten-free. It is also rich in essential minerals and amino acids.