GHANA / 5 min read

THE FONIO WOMEN
Pagaba Fonio Puuni
How farming communities across West Africa rediscovered a gluten-free grain
Photography
Video
Writing
Chirponi, Ghana

In Africa, the adage, “food is culture” is a reality that can be seen throughout the continent. West Africa is home to more than 130 dialects and over 100 ethnic groups. Each tribe cultivates its unique heritage and cultural recipes. Every recipe carries the DNA and history of the tribe that tends it. Depending on its ethnic and geographic source, each dish may have modified recipes and names.

With modernization and globalization, it is no secret that Africa has lost some of its previously most popular and staple food crops. Fonio is a child of this fate – described as one of the oldest African cereals. Acha, iburura, fundi millet, or fogno are all names that are attributed to the superfood grain, fonio. It started to disappear in the early 1970s and gradually faded out of the regional food system.

Digitaria exilis (White Fonio) and Digitaria iborua (Black Fonio) are members of the same family of millets with a great potential to improve nutrition, foster rural development and support sustainable land use. These grains are the smallest among all millet species. Fonio has been cultivated in West Africa for more than 5000 years. It remains an important staple in the region because of its high nutritional value, short growing cycle, and reliable harvest even in the face of drought.
Fonio harvest and processing are traditionally intensive and time consuming tasks, still done mostly manually. On the one hand, its size and hard shell don’t make it easy for farmers to de-hull the grains. On the other, the harvest must be carefully cleaned to separate the grains from eventual impurities and stones. Recently new low-cost and easy to use technologies have mechanized many of the pre-processing activities, like the threshing, dehulling and washing processes.
Fonio, West Africa’s Superfood

Commonly known as the ‘Grain of Life’ or the ‘Hungry Rice,’ Fonio: /ˈfəʊnjəʊ/, is the smallest and one of the oldest grown grains. Recently realized by the rest of the world, the grain is an indigenous West African crop with two cultivated species.

White fonio (Digitaria exilis) has roots that can be traced to Senegal and Chad, while black fonio (Digitaria iborua) is mainly grown in Nigeria and the northern regions of Togo and Benin. In Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, and Togo, fonio was traditionally reserved for chiefs and royalty – enjoyed during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan or at celebrations like weddings and baptisms.

In Ghana, the fonio grain or ekpui / nvoni, as called by native growers, is cultivated in the Saboba-Chereponi and Zabzugu-Tatali districts of the northern region. It is traditionally prepared as a breakfast cereal, rice, couscous, used in salads or stews, or eaten as a side dish. The grain is also milled into flour and used for baking or brewed into the Ghanaian traditional gluten-free beer.

Nutritionally speaking, fonio is a treasure. Naturally gluten-free, fonio is rich in zinc, calcium, magnesium, and has a very low glycaemic index, controls diabetes, contains heart-healthy vitamins, minerals, methionine, and helps strengthen hair and nails. Fonio also helps prevent anemia, detoxes the liver, provides energy, and builds strong bones and teeth. In Togo, fonio is popular for preventing blood clotting after childbirth and stimulating milk production in breastfeeding mothers.
Fonio’s cultural significance and nutritional benefits have been lost over time as this superfood has been replaced by commercial staples like rice and spaghetti.

Traditional fonio farming and processing, with high labor needs and low profitability, had deterred a younger generation from continuing in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers. Now with an established market, removal of unsavory supply chain actors, introduction of appropriate technology and a 5x increase in the price for their product, young women farmers are taking up fonio production. Young men are assisting the young women in their businesses.
In this picture: Vegan recipes with fonio by Organic Trade and Investments.
Sankofa (Returning to Your Roots)

Since the COVID-19 epidemic, more people in West Africa are questioning the foods they consume and are paying attention to the environmental consequences of their food choices.

In less than a year, vegan restaurants and health food groceries have sprung up across Ghana. Certified nutritionists, medical practitioners, and women-owned eateries, such as BackToEden Healthy Foods, Nomadic Restaurant, and Fulani Test Kitchen are campaigning to encourage the fonio’s inclusion in everyday, local culinary tradition.

Women growers and processors are now actively producing fonio across West Africa. As the market demand for fonio increases, Organic Trade & Investments (OTI) has pioneered fonio’s commercialization in Ghana and the international market. In June 2021, the organization mobilized over 1,000 women in Burkina Faso to process the grain on a larger scale. In addition to maintaining the continent’s heritage and the grain’s essence, they are using fonio as a force for women’s empowerment and employment in remote areas.

Video
Reviving Fonio, a Campaign Led by Women

Women spearheaded fonio’s reawakening in Ghana and West Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has published that “in sub-Saharan Africa, women contribute 60% to 80% of the labor in both food production for household consumption and sale.” What is called the “feminization of agriculture” is prevalent in Ghana and is reflected in the entire value chain system of fonio production in the northern parts of the country. While the production activity is supervised and distributed by men, the majority of fonio production is done by a female workforce (>95%). In the northern part of Ghana alone, 80 groups of women are engaged in fonio’s processing.

Historically, West Africa has been noted to be a matriarchal society. Women are often responsible for supplying their families with food and care. They carry the knowledge of the value and diverse use of plants for nutrition, health, and income. It is no surprise that it is women who have revived and spearheaded fonio’s use.

Women Changing the Image of Agriculture in Africa

As the world faces a global health crisis, agriculture is fast becoming a predominantly female sector. Research by K.A Saito concludes that “In Africa women now constitute the majority of smallholder farmers, provide most of the labor and manage farms on a daily basis.” This trend has resulted in more women being self-reliant and financially independent. The improvement in livelihood through agriculture has contributed to the growing number of women-owned agribusiness companies and female-headed households.

The crop itself is not difficult to cultivate as it survives in drought conditions and poor soils without fertilizer application. It’s the processing techniques that remain a challenge.

Historically, women used traditional farming methods for fonio production. Fonio is one particular crop that cannot be machine processed from start to finish and does require labor by hand. However, the agriculture sector remains financially deprived and poorly mechanized in West Africa. Almost fifty percent of crops were once lost due to inadequate machinery. The old tools and techniques were not maintained by this new generation of women agriculturalists. Instead, they use modern technology. Each step of the process, from sowing to harvesting, marketing to distribution, has been streamlined. Without altering the grain’s quality, the supply chain improved to meet 21st-century market demands. Traditional fonio farming and processing, which was characterized by high labor and low returns deterred a younger generation from continuing in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers. Now, with a well-structured market and supply chain, the right technology, and growing global demand, young women farmers and commodity traders are taking fonio production to the next level.

This ancient grain once called a “lost crop” or “orphan crop”, is quickly entering the global market. As fonio is reawakened, the narrative is changing. No longer “lost”, fonio can be found in food aisles and stores across the globe. The demand for fonio is ever-growing and is now a priority crop for West Africa thanks to young women farmers that have refused to let this ancient miracle grain die out.

Principle
ENHANCE LIVELIHOODS FOR WOMEN

Enhance Livelihoods for Women

Women play a primary role in the global agrifood system. They have greater opportunities to thrive when they can grow more biodiversity in their fields. In this way, they can bring biodiversity into their families' diets and create economic security.

Term
PROCESSINGFACILITY-DivyaPR

Processing Facility

Processing facility is an establishment that prepares, treats, or converts raw ingredients into value-added goods or foods.

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Thanks and Credits
Article by Esther Ama Asante
Photos and videos by the team of Organic Trade and Investments
Esther Ama Asante is an award-winning entrepreneur and the Founder, Owner, and CEO of two successful online businesses: Virtual Linguistic Solutions (VLS) and Organic Trade & Investments (OTI). Esther has worked with various multinational companies in Ghana and has championed managerial roles in radically different industries – from the real estate to aviation industries.

Join a bold, new online community for anyone who cares about building more resilient, inclusive food systems.

Writer
Esther Ama Asante

Founder, Owner, and CEO

Virtual Linguistic Solutions (VLS) and Organic Trade & Investments (OTI

Esther Ama Asante, commonly known as Esthy, is an award-winning entrepreneur and the Founder, Owner, and CEO of two successful online businesses: Virtual Linguistic Solutions (VLS) and Organic Trade & Investments (OTI). Esther has worked with various multinational companies in Ghana and has championed managerial roles in radically different industries – from the real estate to aviation industries. She was formerly the Relocation Manager at Executive Relocations Africa, a subsidiary of AGS Movers, and the Quality Manager, Personal Assistant, and Commercial Manager at ,Limited from 2015 to 2018. She masterminded the digitalization of the operations management system of OTI which currently integrates 12,000 farmers and 300 small scale manufacturers across Africa. This powerhouse entrepreneur has been honored with a number of recognitions. In 2018, she received the Best Female e-Commerce Entrepreneur award. In March 2020, she was the only Ghanaian to be conferred the African Global Trade and Investment in Excellence (AGTIE) Award for Trade & Investment Facilitation Excellence. She has been featured in many publications including the American Biz.net, BusinessGhana News, the African Business Communities, and recently, the ecomConnect online magazine, thanks to her impressive achievements and her company’s performance in increasing sales during the COVID-19 crisis. Esther is also a member and an Independent Consultant for the SheTrades Commonwealth Ghana project.

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Eligibility, Submission Terms and Conditions

Sponsor

A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative is sponsored by The Lexicon, a US based 501(c)(3) public charity.

Opportunity

Storytellers will join A Greener Blue Storytelling Collective to create stories for the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture with the FAO and its partner organizations. Members of the Collective will take part in a private online “Total Storytelling Lab” led by The Lexicon’s Douglas Gayeton. Upon completion of this online certificate program, members of the Collective will join seafood experts from around the globe in creating A Greener Blue Storytelling initiative.

Terms

Who can enter and how selections are made.

A Greener Blue is a global call to action that is open to individuals and teams from all over the world. Below is a non-exhaustive list of subjects the initiative targets.

  • Creatives and storytellers with a passion for food and the willingness to support small-scale fisherpeople and experts worldwide. This category includes, but is not exhausted in photographers, videomakers, illustrators, podcasters, and writers.
  • Food Activists working to change open sea fishing and aquaculture; 
  • Members of fishing and indigenous communities that support their communities, share their stories and protect their way of life;
  • Local and International NGOs work every day with actors across the whole value chain to create more sustainable seafood models.

To apply, prospective participants will need to fill out the form on the website, by filling out each part of it. Applications left incomplete or containing information that is not complete enough will receive a low score and have less chance of being admitted to the storytelling lab.

Nonprofit organizations, communities of fishers and fish farmers and companies that are seeking a closer partnership or special support can also apply by contacting hello@thelexicon.org and interacting with the members of our team.

Special attention will be given to the section of the form regarding the stories that the applicants want to tell and the reasons for participating. All proposals for stories regarding small-scale or artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, communities of artisanal fishers or aquaculturists, and workers in different steps of the seafood value chain will be considered.

Stories should show the important role that these figures play in building a more sustainable seafood system. To help with this narrative, the initiative has identified 10 principles that define a more sustainable seafood system. These can be viewed on the initiative’s website and they state:
Seafood is sustainable when:

  • it helps address climate change
  • it supports global ecosystems
  • it optimizes impact on resources and nutrient cycles.
  • it promotes a safe growing environment for safe food sources.
  • it advances animal welfare.
  • it enhances flavor and nutrition.
  • it builds resilience and self-sufficiency in local communities.
  • it prioritizes inclusion, equality, and fair treatment of workers.
  • it preserves legality and the quality and the story of the product throughout the value chain.
  • it creates opportunities along the whole value chain.

Proposed stories should show one or more of these principles in practice.

Applications are open from the 28th of June to the 15th of August 2022. There will be 50 selected applicants who will be granted access to The Lexicon’s Total Storytelling Lab. These 50 applicants will be asked to accept and sign a learning agreement and acceptance of participation document with which they agree to respect The Lexicon’s code of conduct.

The first part of the lab will take place online between August the 22nd and August the 26th and focus on training participants on the foundation of storytelling, supporting them to create a production plan, and aligning all of them around a shared vision.

Based on their motivation, quality of the story, geography, and participation in the online Lab, a selected group of participants will be gifted a GoPro camera offered to the program by GoPro For A Change. Participants who are selected to receive the GoPro camera will need to sign an acceptance and usage agreement.

The second part of the Storytelling Lab will consist of a production period in which each participant will be supported in the production of their own story. This period goes from August 26th to October 13th. Each participant will have the opportunity to access special mentorship from an international network of storytellers and seafood experts who will help them build their story. The Lexicon also provides editors, animators, and graphic designers to support participants with more technical skills.

The final deadline to submit the stories is the 14th of October. Participants will be able to both submit complete edited stories, or footage accompanied by a storyboard to be assembled by The Lexicon’s team.

All applicants who will exhibit conduct and behavior that is contrary to The Lexicon’s code of conduct will be automatically disqualified. This includes applicants proposing stories that openly discriminate against a social or ethnic group, advocate for a political group, incite violence against any group, or incite to commit crimes of any kind.

All submissions must be the entrant’s original work. Submissions must not infringe upon the trademark, copyright, moral rights, intellectual rights, or rights of privacy of any entity or person.

Participants will retain the copyrights to their work while also granting access to The Lexicon and the other partners of the initiative to share their contributions as part of A Greener Blue Global Storytelling Initiative.

If a potential selected applicant cannot be reached by the team of the Initiative within three (3) working days, using the contact information provided at the time of entry, or if the communication is returned as undeliverable, that potential participant shall forfeit.

Offering

Selected applicants will be granted access to an advanced Storytelling Lab taught and facilitated by Douglas Gayeton, award-winning storyteller and information architect, co-founder of The Lexicon. In this course, participants will learn new techniques that will improve their storytelling skills and be able to better communicate their work with a global audience. This skill includes (but is not limited to) how to build a production plan for a documentary, how to find and interact with subjects, and how to shoot a short documentary.

Twenty of the participants will receive a GoPro Hero 11 Digital Video and Audio Cameras by September 15, 2022. Additional participants may receive GoPro Digital Video and Audio Cameras to be announced at a later date. The recipients will be selected by advisors to the program and will be based on selection criteria (see below) on proposals by Storytelling Lab participants. The selections will keep in accordance with Lab criteria concerning geography, active participation in the Storytelling Lab and commitment to the creation of a story for the Initiative, a GoPro Camera to use to complete the storytelling lab and document their story. These recipients will be asked to sign an acceptance letter with terms of use and condition to receive the camera. 

The Lexicon provides video editors, graphic designers, and animators to support the participants to complete their stories.

The submitted stories will be showcased during international and local events, starting from the closing event of the International Year of Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 in Rome, in January 2023. The authors of the stories will be credited and may be invited to join.

All selection criteria

Storytelling lab participation:

Applicants that will be granted access to the storytelling Lab will be evaluated based on the entries they provided in the online form, and in particular:

  • The completeness of their form
  • The relevance of their story (coherence with the main goal of the initiative and 10 principles)
  • Written motivation explained
  • Geography (the initiative aims at showcasing stories from all over the world so the mix of locations will be a factor that the selection committee will take into account)
 

Applications will be evaluated by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

When selecting applications, the call promoters may request additional documentation or interviews both for the purpose of verifying compliance with eligibility requirements and to facilitate proposal evaluation.

Camera recipients:

Participants to the Storytelling Lab who will be given a GoPro camera will be selected based on:

  • Quality of the story (coherence with the initiative and the 10 principles)
  • Motivation demonstrated during the interaction in the online class
  • Participation in the online class (participants that will attend less than 4 classes will be automatically excluded)
 

The evaluation will be carried out by a team of 4 judges from The Lexicon, GSSI and the team of IYAFA (Selection committee).

Incidental expenses and all other costs and expenses which are not specifically listed in these Official Rules but which may be associated with the acceptance, receipt and use of the Storytelling Lab and the camera are solely the responsibility of the respective participants and are not covered by The Lexicon or any of the A Greener Blue partners.

All participants who receive a Camera are required to sign an agreement allowing GoPro for a Cause, The Lexicon and GSSI to utilize the films for A Greener Blue and their promotional purposes. All participants will be required to an agreement to upload their footage into the shared drive of The Lexicon and make the stories, films and images available for The Lexicon and the promoting partners of A Greener Blue.

Additional Limitations

Selection and distribution of the camera is non-transferable. No substitution or cash equivalent of the cameras is granted. The Lexicon and its respective partners and representatives are not responsible for any typographical or other errors in the offer or administration of the Initiative, including, but not limited to, errors in any printing or posting or the Official Rules, the selection and announcement of any selected participant, or the distribution of any equipment. Any attempt to damage the content or operation of this Initiative is unlawful and subject to possible legal action by The Lexicon. The Lexicon reserves the right to terminate, suspend or amend the Initiative, without notice, and for any reason, including, without limitation, if The Lexicon determines that the Lab cannot be conducted as planned or should a virus, bug, tampering or unauthorized intervention, technical failure or other cause beyond The Lexicon’s control corrupt the administration, security, fairness, integrity or proper play of the Contest. In the event any tampering or unauthorized intervention may have occurred, The Lexicon reserves the right to void suspect entries at issue.