Fonio is a gluten-free ancient African supergrain that’s great for you, others, and the planet.
Fonio (Digitaria exilis) is a tiny ancient grain that has been grown and celebrated across West Africa for thousands of years. Fonio has been found entombed in Egyptian pyramids. To the Dogon people of Mali, it is “the seed of the universe” – the grain at the root of all existence. In most of West Africa, fonio is served to guests as a sign of honor. Fonio has different culinary roles depending on where you are in West Africa. I grew up in Senegal, where in the southern region we eat fonio like we eat rice or couscous. Malians most often pair it with peanuts to make a traditional staple called Djouka. People in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Benin and Togo make starchy fonio side dishes in the form of polenta or cakes. No matter how you cook it, fonio offers distinct nutritional benefits over other grains.
Fonio is prized everywhere for its easy digestibility and low glycemic index. It’s often served to honored guests and to convalescents, diabetics, and of course people suffering from celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Fonio is strong in Methionine and Cystine, two amino acids that are essential for growth.
Farmers in West Africa have historically placed a high value on fonio not only for its nutritional properties, but also because of the way it fits into the ecosystem. The fonio belt stretches across the southern edge of the Sahel, the band of semi-arid territory between the Sahara desert and tropical Africa’s lush forests.
The Sahel is hot and dry for most of the year, and most of the land is too sandy to support most crops. But drought-resistant fonio flourishes in that inhospitable setting. Its extensive roots help it draw water from deep underground, and it doesn’t need much attention. Fonio is important to rural West Africans because it’s the first crop to be harvested in the “hungry season” – the end of the rainy season, when the previous year’s harvest is gone but no other crops have come in yet. That’s one reason that people still cultivate fonio despite how physically demanding it is to thresh, winnow and clean the tiny grain.
When we set out to bring fonio to the US in a big and impactful way, we learned right away that we would have to do something about its supply chain. Fonio’s tiny size makes it hard to process. Every step, from harvesting to threshing, winnowing, husking, and cleaning is physically exhausting. Though farmers could easily grow more fonio than they do now, they don’t have the processing capacity to keep up with larger harvests. Equipment can deal with some of these processes, but owning and operating it is hopelessly out of reach for smallholders living in one of world’s poorest regions, where shelter is a thatch-roofed hut.