Can fonio be a solution for the wheat crisis in Africa?
Fonio is a traditional cereal that grows naturally in Senegal and has been cultivated for thousands of years. Fonio may be part of the solution to Africa's food crisis, as the continent is now the slave of non-native grain imports such as wheat. Industrial monocultures have since long overtaken the "old-fashioned" varieties. There is hence a need to turn the tide. And while the world's granaries in the global north are now struck by war or extreme drought, it is in the best interest of the people of Africa to become independent of the spasms of the global market and invest in local and regional food solutions.
(Photo at top: Farmers with fonio in Senegal, by Richard Nyberg of USAID, Wikipedia.)
Fonio: a forgotten cereal
Fonio is a drought-resistant cereal that can grow in poor or even desert-like soil. It germinates after only a few days and ready for harvest in six weeks or so. Harvesting is done by hand and is labor intensive. It is one of the oldest grains for human consumption in Africa. Since 2018, fonio has become available in European supermarkets, to end up in trendy vegetarian dishes. Some even call it a superfood (but I'm not a fan of that word myself). It is valued for being gluten-free, high in protein, fiber and minerals, and healthier than wheat and other 'depleted' industrial crops.
Making room for foreign cash crops
Since colonization, many African indigenous crops have been replaced by cash crops such as wheat, rice, maize, etc., which are traded on the world market and are profitable when exported. These crops are, or were, economically more efficiently grown, harvested, processed and distributed. Wheat-based end products such as bread, pastries, pasta, noodles and cakes are also increasingly preferred in urbanized areas both north and south of the Sahara. It is one of the causes of the increase in lifestyle diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
But the profitable economic model of industrial wheat does not take into account biodiversity, sustainability and long-term planning in terms of food security, so far. Moreover, wheat is a crop that is not suited to the African climate and soils, it needs much fertilizer input and adaptation of the soil. Some sources proclaim that Africa needs to diversify its wheat partners, as wheat has now become an important part of the African diet. And yes, when hunger strikes, one cannot ask to take away the much needed wheat. Yet a reappraisal of old forgotten crops is also necessary.
Meanwhile, severe drought and consequent hunger have hit the Horn of Africa since months, and wheat imports from Eurasia have been destabilized by war. An overhaul of the food chain is as pressing as can be. Cooperative organizations have long recognized that traditional dishes and crops need to be reappreciated, and now policy leaders are (hopefully) starting to see it too. Farming of fonio, sorghum, millet, teff (from Ethiopia) and many types of legumes should be boosted. Local farmers should be supported to grow in the natural, traditional way. Moreover, fonio is tasty, nutty and versatile. Many organizations and NGOs, such as the Forgotten Crops Society, the Slow Food International, SOS Sahel and others, are urging to invest in the research of these types of crops, which have been part of local African diets for thousands of years.
Let's make sure that the growing interest in fashionable African 'superfoods' will firstly benefit the peoples of Africa. Because some locals are saying (in the source article, see below) that big trucks are already coming to take away their fonio to be exported, when in fact Africans need it. Let it be a message. Eat local and healthy, wherever you are, and don't be tempted by foreign superfoods (grow it yourself, or check whether they are grown on sustainable farms in your neighbourhood).
Kaamil Ahmed in Kédougou, Senegal, in The Guardian, 2022/07/07, 'Fonio just grows naturally': could ancient indigenous crops ensure food security for Africa?
The Conversation, 2022/04/13, Russia-Ukraine crisis highlights Africa's need to diversify its wheat sources.
Some keywords: fonio, extreme drought, horn of africa, forgotten crops, forgotten crops society, sos sahel, slow food, africa food crisis, wheat crisis, global north, good climate news, kathelijne bonne.
Article by Kathelijne Bonne, geologist and soil scientist. I also write on GondwanaTalks.