Fonio: Feeding the Future with an Ancient Crop

By Jameson Spivack

For many, crabgrass is a nuisance and a pest, an unwanted weed in gardens and lawns. However, its relative, fonio, is a delicacy in Africa with significant nutritional, agricultural, and economic benefits. Grown primarily in Western Africa, it is considered the oldest cereal in the region.

Fonio is a delicacy in Africa and has significant nutritional, agricultural, and economic benefits (Photo Credit: Fonio Bio)

Until recently, fonio was considered by many crop breeders and agronomists to be an inferior grain due to its small seed size. People are now discovering, however, the potential it has to provide nutrition to those in Africa who struggle to obtain proper nutrients.

Fonio can be grown in soils that are sandy, acidic, or low in nutrients. This flexibility makes it suitable for growing in regions that typically cannot support agriculture. It is also highly nutritious, providing the body with amino acids, calcium, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and other important minerals. Because fonio doesn’t contain any glutenin or gliadin proteins, which comprise gluten, those with gluten intolerance may consume the crop. And it is a tasty cereal with a variety of options for preparation.

In terms of growing the crop, there are added benefits. The crop comes in different landraces, or traditional breeds, with varying growing times. Since some breeds take a long time to grow and others a short time, farmers can ensure a continuous supply of produce, even in times of change or unreliable growing conditions. Also, the small size prevents insects from developing inside the grain, which makes it easier to store in facilities with conditions that are not optimal.

This small size does pose some challenges, however, for producing fonio on a large scale. Its size makes post-harvest processing more difficult, with de-husking and cleaning requiring large amounts of time and effort. According to the World Bank’s Olivier Durand, however, “New techniques will improve the productivity while reducing the work hardship for women.” Developing threshing and dehulling techniques would decrease the amount of labor needed to produce fonio, allowing the crop to be grown in higher quantities.

With its high nutritional content and flexible growing capacity, fonio has the potential to provide many in Africa with the nutrients needed to remain healthy.

Jameson Spivack is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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