Fonio (Digitaria exilis) is one of the oldest cultivated cereals in Africa, dating back to 5,000 BC. Fonio is the smallest species of millet.
In the mythology of the Dogon people in Mali, the creator made the universe by exploding a single grain of fonio, located inside the "egg of the world". The Dogon people of Mali believe the universe was created by exploding a single fonio grain.
Fonio is considered as a staple food in dry areas of several West African countries including Guinea, Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, and Togo. Fonio plays a crucial role in food security in hungry seasons and critical periods when food reserves in the household are low. It grows in the Sahel belt, a semi–arid landscape located between the Sahara and tropical regions of central Africa that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Horn of Africa. Fonio sustains millions of people early in the growing season, and therefore can be considered as a coping strategy for increased household food security.
The tiny seed is rich in two vital amino acids for humans’ consumption: methionine and cystine. Fonio is also regarded as a grain with medicinal and healing properties; it is recommended for lactating women and diabetic people and is often used in diets of sick people. Fonio is a small scale farmers’ crop and provides important income to the household; for example, the price of one kilo of cleaned fonio is about 1.5 to 2 times that of rice.
Fonio has potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable land use. Despite the widespread cultivation of maize and other non-native cereals since the 20th century, African farmers and consumers still value fonio highly because it is nutritious and extremely fast growing.
Best practices in Fonio cultivation
Fonio is a very hardy crop and grows well on poor shallow, sandy or rocky soils unsuitable for other cereals, but does not prosper in saline or heavy soils. It can even produce seed on soils with aluminum levels that are toxic to other crops and can be relied on in dry savannah lands, where rains are brief and unreliable.
Fonio requires little input in its cultivation and it is highly adapted to drought and low-fertility soils. Fonio is grown at sea level in Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone, but more often it is cultivated at 600–1500 m altitude. The average temperature in the growing season ranges from 20ºC at higher altitudes to 25–30ºC near sea level.
Fonio is grown in areas with an average annual rainfall of 150–3000mm, but its cultivation is concentrated in regions with an average annual rainfall of 900–1000mm. It is not as drought resistant as pearl millet, but fast-maturing landraces reaching maturity in only 8 weeks are suited to areas with short and unreliable rains. In areas with very low rainfall it is grown in valleys benefiting from run-off water.
The entire fonio production in Africa is estimated at 250,000 to 300,000tons/year on more than 380,000 hectares. Fonio grains are used by African consumers in porridge and couscous, for bread, and for brewing beer. The tiny grains are gluten-free and rich in protein, and consumers outside Africa are beginning to recognize its flavour and nutritional qualities. Fonio is light and easy to digest and can be included in many different cereal-based recipes, making it an attractive ingredient for health food products for those with gluten intolerance, in poor health or for baby food.
Challenges in Fonio production
A major obstacle to increasing fonio production is the long and complex processing. The tiny grain makes dehusking and milling, traditionally done by women using a pestle and mortar, highly laborious.
Moreover, post-harvest activities are laborious and time-consuming. Meanwhile, urbanization and related changes leading to an increased demand of industrially produced and sophisticated foods induced a rapid shift of coarse grains to non-traditional grains. This resulted in a decreased consumption of fonio as traditional food, particularly in urban areas.
Also, to define quality criteria for precooked fonio, and determine consumer demand in Africa and Europe remains unsolved yet. As regards quality, sand (used for processing) in whitened (processed) fonio is still one of the main problems to be solved in order to produce quality fonio for sale in supermarkets and on the export market.
Moreover, it is difficult for small-holder farmers to increase their production volume without access to finance. Efforts are on their ways for Senegalese farmers growing fonio to exploring ways of improving local and export markets.
Research efforts at national and regional levels focus are currently focusing on:
- Genetic diversity and production. Germplasm of fonio is collected, characterized and conserved; promising cultivars are selected and released to farmers;
- Improvement of threshing and husking methods. Currently, a new husking machine has been developed (Sanoussi’s husker). New threshing and husking practices are being tested;
- Improvement of the product quality. Techniques and methods to produce sandless fonio (premium fonio) are being developed.
Research institutes and development organizations in the sub region are now devoting more attention to the crop. The following results have been achieved:
- Through participatory approach, major limiting factors to the promotion of the crop was identified by farmers, processing units and research institutes;
- Five cultivars of early to medium growing cycle and with good yielding potential have been released to farmers;
- A husking machine has been locally developed and adopted;
- Other tools that have been introduced are being tested;
- Post harvest technologies to reduce grain losses are being experimented.
Sources and References
European Commission (2006). A project funded under the EU’s Research Programme explores properties of the African cereal fonio as a healthy and cheap addition to European diets, while at the same time generating incomes for local producers. [Accessed 13 July 2012]
Fanou-Fogny N, Koreissi Y, Dossa RAM, Brouwer ID. Consumption of, and beliefs about fonio (Digitaria exilis) in urban area in Mali. AJFAND 2009; 9(9): 1927-1944 cited in Fonio (Digitaria exilis) as a staple food in Mali: an approach to upgrade nutritional value, Nadia M.L. Fanou-Fogny, Thesis 22 June 2012. [Accessed 13 July 2012]
USAID, Support For Accelerated Growth And Increased Competitiveness (2008). Chaîne de Valeur Fonio - Sénégal Analyse et Cadre Strategique d’Initiatives pour la Croissance de la Filière. [Accessed 13 July 2012] Vodouhe R.S., Achigan Dako G.E., Dansi A., Adoukonou-Sagbadja H. (2008). Fonio: A treasure for West Africa. Genetic Resources Multiplication And Utilization [Accessed 13 July 2012]
Senegal (2010). Research information from infosysplus.org: Organisations and projects in Senegal.