Fonio — a new “superfood” from Africa (but remember whose crop it is)

Fonio is just one of many wonderful African crops and foods featured in “Seven Grains of Paradise: A Culinary Journey in Africa.”

It’s become nearly as predictable as night following day. Every couple of years or so we can count on being blitzed by a batch of headlines claiming this or that nut or leaf or fruit or vegetable is the world’s new “superfood.” It’s happened with kale, avocados, sweet potatoes, blueberries, quinoa, you name it. Now, the headlines tell us it’s about to happen to an ancient grain from Africa called fonio.

Now I’m not about to dispute that fonio is a wonderful food. In fact, it’s something I’ve been saying for years, ever since friends in Mali introduced me to this special grain, the oldest cereal in Africa. In recent years, the renowned Senegalese food writer and chef Pierre Thiam has used his powerful voice to sing the praises of fonio, saying this “miracle grain” can help bring prosperity to impoverished areas in West Africa. He also co-founded Yolélé, a company to promote the cultivation of fonio in Africa and its marketing in the United States. He has even negotiated a deal with Whole Foods, which started selling fonio in packages this year.

A miracle crop bred in Africa

Chef Thiam is right; it’s definitely time that the world took note of this marvellous African crop, which has been cultivated and bred for thousands of years by people across West Africa. Today, despite the fact that imported and processed foods are marginalizing healthy traditional ones as people in the region turn away from “country food” they view as inferior (yet another unfortunate legacy of colonialism), farmers still devote more than 300,000 hectares to fields of fonio and it feeds three or four million people. It is a grass that flourishes even in periods of drought, extremely important in the face of the changing climate, and it may also be the world’s fastest maturing cereal.

Although it’s sometimes disparaged as “hungry rice” in English, this is highly misleading. People who eat fonio don’t do so because they have nothing else to eat and are reduced by hunger to consuming the little brown grain. (I’m certainly not starving and I eat fonio every time I can get my hands on some.) People eat fonio because they love it; it has a scrumptious, slightly nutty flavour and tastes like heaven when doused with all kinds of sauces. It has been considered the food of royalty and chiefs, and a food for special occasions. In some places, fonio is still part of ceremonies of thanksgiving for ancestors. It’s one of the world’s most nutritious grains, rich in amino acids vital to human health, which are often lacking in today’s major cereals, such as wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, barley, and rye.

Land degradation is often severe in Mali. (photo: Joan Baxter)

Fonio grows well on poor and sandy soils, and with rampant desertification and land degradation there are plenty of those in the Sahel, the semi-arid band of land that stretches across Africa from Sudan in the east to Senegal in the west. Some varieties of the grain mature so quickly — in just six or eight weeks during the rainy season — that they are ready to eat long before other staple grains. So they offer a quick and sure fix for the annual “hungry season” when farm families are waiting for their other crops to be ready to harvest.

A superlatively wonderful food

Superlatives fail when it comes to this grain. Yet a Malian friend, the late Mana Diakité, told me a few years ago that urban dwellers were turning away from fonio and other nutritious indigenous grains such as millet and sorghum as they adopt Western eating habits and, influenced by imported notions of which foods confer status, turn to rice for their midday meals. However, he still ate fonio regularly because he said it was good in his diabetic diet.

Processed foods and flavour cubes are often heavily advertised in Africa, squeezing out more nutritious traditional foods and condiments. (photo: Joan Baxter)

He figured he wouldn’t even have developed type II diabetes had he continued eating the local foods that his grandmother and mother prepared when he was growing up, the nutritious soumbala spice made from fermented seeds of the locust bean tree instead of artificial flavour-enhancing cubes, whole grains and fresh ingredients instead of processed foods from outside. Diakité traced his diabetes back to the years he spent in the United States where he and his wife were both working and unable to find, let alone cook and consume Malian foods.

“We bought fast food,” he said. “That was a terrible thing. It doesn’t have any taste, and you grow like a balloon.” In the US he and his family longed for foods like fonio and the traditional dishes he ate when he was young. When he couldn’t get them, they haunted him. “I will die with their taste,” he declared. Sadly, Diakité succumbed to the side effects of his diabetes and passed away not even a year after we had that conversation.

An eye on food and seed sovereignty

Were he still alive, I imagine he would be of two minds about the headlines proclaiming the immense promise of fonio. One on hand, he would probably be thrilled — as I am — to see this nutritious African food and hardy crop finally getting the recognition it deserves, with the hope that the family farmers who produce it in West Africa benefit from its growing popularity and market.

Traditional grains (varieties of millet and sorghum) and tree crops (such as baobab fruit and leaves) are some of West Africa’s best defenses against food insecurity and climate change. (photo: Joan Baxter)

But as a committed defender of smallholder farmers and food and seed sovereignty, he might also share my concerns that once the global market notices fonio — specifically the global corporations in the business of taking control of our food and food chain, they might also decide to wrestle control of its seed, its production and its marketing away from the people whose crop it is.

Although it’s a broad and complex concept, “food sovereignty” essentially means the right of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, as opposed to having food and farms largely subject to international market forces. The term was coined in 1996 by La Via Campesina, the world’s largest association of farmers, which represents the interests of peasant organizations, small- and medium-scale farmers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America and Europe. It counts as members close to 150 organizations and coalitions of organizations, all advocating family-farm-based sustainable agriculture through food sovereignty.

They are concerned that the biotech and agrichemical juggernauts that now control most of the world’s seeds and pesticide sales are digging into seed banks in Africa and around the world to get their hands on genetic material, patent it and also manipulate it with genetic modification so they can sell it back to the world’s farmers with their own copyright on it. Their fears seem well founded.

By 2006, the biggest ten seed corporations controlled 64 percent of the world’s seed markets. Just one of those, Monsanto, controlled a staggering one-fifth of the global market, while Monsanto together with Syngenta, Dupont and Limagrain, accounted for about half of all proprietary seeds sold on the planet. Monsanto continued to buy up seed companies around the world, concentrating and solidifying its grip on our food.

A need for caution

By 2016, the world’s six largest seed and agrochemical companies were working on mergers that would reduce their numbers, putting the control of the majority of global sales of seeds and chemicals in the hands of just three gargantuan corporations. This corporate control of seeds, and thus our food, robs the rest of us — the eaters and the food growers — of food sovereignty, the control over our food system, what we grow, how we grow it and what we eat.

And this is why there is a need for caution whenever the world discovers a new “superfood” like fonio, to ensure that the real benefits accrue in Africa, to those who have developed and bred this crop for millennia, and not in corporate boardrooms and elsewhere in the lofty echelons of the global and industrial food system.