GHANA / 5 min read

Pagaba Fonio Puuni
How farming communities across West Africa rediscovered a gluten-free grain
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.

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.


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.


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.

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, 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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