Fonio is a tiny grain that has sustained rural West Africans for over 5,000 years. High in protein (and particularly strong in the essential amino acids methionine and cystine, which are deficient in most grains), fiber, and iron, this gluten-free grain is treasured from Senegal all the way to Nigeria. Look at it on a map to get a feel for how much territory that covers!
Fonio is easy to grow, but hard to turn into food. Its small size means cleaning takes a lot more time and physical effort relative to the major grains. But it has persisted in West African agriculture for millennia despite that obstacle, mainly because fonio grows so quickly. Its early harvest provides necessary nutrition at the leanest time of the year, the “hungry season”.
Perhaps in part because fonio saves lives, it is considered sacred and is imbued with spiritual meaning in many parts of West Africa. In Dogon mythology, fonio is “the seed of the universe”, the tiny bit of matter at the heart of the Big Bang. In southern Senegal, people would plant fonio around their compounds to keep evil spirits at bay. Sometimes, mothers would even put raw fonio grains in their childrens’ school bags for protection.
Fonio is also valued for its easy digestibility and suitability for people suffering from diabetes. It is often given to convalescents, small children, and to honored guests upon arrival from a long journey.
We’re fond of fonio for all of those reasons, but what really grabs us is its performance in the kitchen.
Oh, and one more major virtue: Fonio has the potential to transform the economic landscape of rural West Africa. That’s what drives Yolélé. We think that the combination of a large export market for this traditional ingredient with a beneficial, commercial-scale supply chain will provide life-changing results for the people who live in this region: increased income for smallholders, jobs for youth, land reclaimed from the desert, a climate change mitigating, resilient agricultural system.
We are proud to play a role in helping to change the conditions that have made rural West Africa one of the world’s most vulnerable places. This will be a long process, but we see a path to a better life for millions.
Yolélé fonio is Digitaria exilis, the species grown from Senegal and Guinea through Mali and Burkina Faso. Another species, Digitaria iborua, grows in the eastern end of West Africa, from Togo and Benin to Nigeria. Yolélé fonio is milled and pre-cooked, so a) it comes out fluffy like couscous, and b) it’s ready in minutes.