Will fonia become the new quinoa?

Image by Mani Babbar Photography | flickr.com

Image by Mani Babbar Photography | flickr.com

Back in June 2014 I wrote an article entitled “Wanted: Quinoa”. I stated that quinoa’s marketing success might be a good example for other indigenous grains from developing worlds to follow, such as the grain fonio. And here we are. March 2015, Canada, Vancouver’s Whole Foods Market: I bought my first food store chain marketed package of fonio. It wasn't cheap, priced at CAD $8.99 per 300 g, but I bought it anyway, having little idea on how to use it. I bought it in the hope that many others who recently meticulously packed their shopping baskets with quinoa will also try this West African novelty. But before I started to cook with fonio, I decided to look for answers to a few questions: Why would one be willing to purchase fonio instead of quinoa? What differentiates fonio from quinoa? Can fonio become as successful in the Western world markets as quinoa has?

What is fonio?

White fonio (Latin: Digitaria exiles), commonly known as “hungry rice”, is considered to be the oldest cereal in Africa, named by people from Mali as the “germ of the world”. It is recognized as the world’s fastest growing grain, reaching full maturity in 6-8 weeks. Fonio's biochemical composition can be compared with other cereals like rice, maize, wheat, or millet, however fonio is much richer in sulphuric amino acids: methionine and cystine. What is important is that, like quinoa, fonio is gluten free. This fact likely makes it a good candidate for future success stories, because at the moment many people living in developed countries consider themselves to be “gluten free”. They either have real or imaginary problems with gluten digestion. In both cases it is good news for fonio's marketing potential, at least in the gluten free segment of cereal consumers. Both quinoa and fonio belong to the group of old cereals (or rather pseudo cereals as some claim) that were domesticated as early as 7000 years ago.

A short video by National Geographic about the role of fonio in West Africa can be seen here.

As plants, both quinoa and fonio have rather low requirements. Quinoa, depending on its type, grows mainly in the Altiplanos and Jungas of Bolivia and Peru. Fonio grows in tropical climates and much like quinoa it flourishes in rather poor, sandy soils. Additionally, both cereals have low water requirements. This is an important fact, especially from a farmer's point of view. The main problem with fonio seems to be associated with its labour-intensive threshing: it is very small and consequently, it is hard to husk. Fortunately, in the future as demand for fonio in developed countries increases, technology might be able to facilitate this highly manual husking process.

White fonio is cultivated in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Nigeria, and Benin. It is considered as one of the best tasting cereals in Africa. A West African saying claims that “fonio never embarrasses the cook”. This fact gives it an advantage over quinoa, as quinoa is frequently blamed for its mildly bitter taste caused by the saponin layer covering the grain. Both fonio and quinoa cook rather quickly, but because fonio's grain size is smaller than quinoa's it cooks faster. So here fonio can potentially have another advantage over quinoa. 

Fonio's current average productivity is about 800kg/Ha. The total world production and area harvested of fonio between 2000 and 2013 according to FAOSTAT can be seen on the two graphs below. For comparison, total worldwide harvested area and production of quoina is also presented.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.