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.
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Fonio’s cultural significance and nutritional benefits have been lost over time as this superfood has been replaced by commercial staples like rice and spaghetti.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Processing facility is an establishment that prepares, treats, or converts raw ingredients into value-added goods or foods.
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