In July 2017, a Whole Foods Store in New York’s Harlem decided to stock bags of fonio, a West African grain that is similar to couscous. Their first shipment sold out in a matter of hours.
Just last week, Los Angeles Lakers forward Luol Deng hosted a fonio party at his house. It is quite literally the hottest grain on the market that you have never eaten.
Noah Levine, the chief marketing officer at Yolélé Foods, a company that is attempting to create the first global supply chain for this grain, says that “We’re ready for fonio to go to the next level.” However, it’s a bit of a challenge. At the moment, fonio is grown throughout rural Senegal and other impoverished pockets of Africa’s Sahel region – a sub-Saharan stripe that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
Yolélé’s product is only currently available in two specialty shops in Brooklyn, New York and Los Angeles.
The grains resurgence really couldn’t come at a better time for the fraught region. Most of the Sahel coastline – where the population is booming – is on the front lines of climate departure – the inflection point at which a place’s average temperature of its coolest year after 2005 becomes hotter than the historic average temperature of its hottest year since 1860.
“With climate departure comes an increase in climate variability,” says Christopher Field, the director of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “In environments that are very climate-dependent, crops that produce even in bad years are going to matter more.”
Laos, Nigeria, Africa’s largest city, is on course to reach climate departure by 2029. Cape Town is scheduled to run out of water by June and hit its climate departure in 2038. Given the current climate, fonio could be the difference between feast and famine in this region.
Yolélé is trying to establish the world’s first fonio factory in Dakar, with the goal of providing an economic boost to the locals, many of whom risk their lives taking torturous paths of illicit migration across the Sahara and Mediterranean.
However, even in the 21st century, fonio industrialization is a tough feat. Sanoussi Diakite, an inventor from Senegal, created a machine for husking the grain 22 years ago. The problems clearly extend beyond manufacturing difficulties.
Stephen Wood, an ecologist with a master’s degree in economics who has studied the grain for a decade, says that, “I’m a super-fan of fonio. I’m just not a super-fan of the idea that it’s a cure-all. People don’t want to farm. They want to move to cities. Fonio isn’t going to change that.”
This grain is exceptionally light, so you need to eat more of it to feel full. Local diets are also lacking in meat and vegetables, not just grain.
Finally, there is a colonial mentality that we have to try and overcome. There’s a tendency “to look down at our own products and to see crops like fonio simply as country people’s food – therefore substandard,” said Pierre Thiam, an expert on African cuisine and Yolélé’s co-founder.
In fact, it’s easier to find a wheat baguette in the streets of Dakar than a croissant made from fonio, even though Senegal has never traditionally produced wheat.
Gluten-free, with four times the protein, three times the fiber and nearly twice the iron of brown rice, as well as a low glycemic index, fonio is undoubtedly a super grain. It doesn’t need much water to survive, can be harvested three times a year, and its extensive root system helps in the fight against soil erosion. In Levine’s eyes, fonio is the cure to hunger, drought, poverty, and the global migrant crisis.
The population of this part of Africa is expected to double by 2050. Is fonio going to feed all of these people? No, it isn’t. Can it end their poverty so they can live more like we do? Absolutely.