Fonio (pronounced ‘phone-yo’) is the new kid on the superfood block. An ancient African grain that has been cultivated for over 5,000 years in the scrubland of the Sahel, fonio is a member of the millet family and has the appearance of shrunken couscous. To give you an idea of scale, 1,000 grains of either white (more common) or black fonio weighs a puny 0.5 grammes (0.018 ounces), compared to 1,000 grains of rice, which accounts for 22 grammes (0.78 ounces).
Described as having a “delicious, nutty and earthy flavour” by celebrated New York-based Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam, fonio is also well regarded for its versatility; it can be substituted for almost every other cereal.
Gluten-free, nutritious and incredibly light: fonio is a superfoodie’s dream. It’s rich in proteins, containing amino acids that are absent in most comparable cereals. It’s also a top-notch carbohydrate: it’s very high in fibre, easily digestible and releases its energy slowly. Then there’s the magician’s hat of nutrients to pick from: calcium, zinc, magnesium, manganese and twice the iron of brown rice. Finally, just to top it off, fonio has a low glycaemic index, so even diabetics can enjoy it.
Fonio’s real ‘super’ traits, however, relate to its production, which has the potential to save many lives. Fonio is cultivated in arid areas of Africa where other crops struggle to survive; areas without irrigation or fertile soil; areas where water is in short supply. In other words, it’s drought-proof. It doesn’t require fertiliser and grows from seed to maturity quicker than any other crop harvested in the same regions, taking a mere six to eight weeks.
In areas where desertification has ruined land and job opportunities, and forced inhabitants to leave in search of food and employment, fonio thrives. It’s why it’s nicknamed the ‘miracle grain’, as it has the potential to cure hunger, poverty and the Sahelian migration crisis.
Thiam stumbled across fonio in the southeast Senegalese region of Kedougou. He’d never seen it in Dakar, where grains that are not grown in the country, such as wheat, are available on every shop corner. It seemed to him that in Senegalese urban centres, fonio was less the ‘miracle grain’ and more the ‘lost grain’.
“Traditional processing is laborious and time-consuming, especially when compared to other grains,” explains Thiam, adding that the time taken to thresh and husk fonio meant it struggled to make it to commercial markets. However, with the advancement of mechanised threshing methods, as well as better ways to separate contaminants such as sand or gravel, fonio has begun to enjoy a renaissance.
Now, it is used in tabbouleh-style salads, as a replacement for couscous. It can be heated and swirled into a warming, nutty porridge or made into noodles. It can be ground into gluten-free flour and used to brew beer. Thiam has even come up with recipes for fonio fruit salad, fonio croquettes and fonio sushi. But despite its many incarnations, in Senegal the ‘miracle grain’ is most commonly found fluffed up like rice and served with peanut sauce (mafé).
Outside of the Kedougou region, finding fonio in a restaurant is a lottery: season, price and raw luck tend to determine whether it’s on the menu. That being said, you have a better chance in the larger traditional Senegalese restaurants in Dakar, such as Chez Loutcha and Le Djembe in Plateau and La Calebasse in Mamelles.
If you’re looking to cook it yourself, Kermel and Sandanga markets are the best bets, while a number of Dakar-based African food retailers, such as Africa Gourmet in Ngor and Les Saveurs du Sahel in Yoff, also stock fonio on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, for those who haven’t had the luxury of travelling to Senegal (or other parts of the Sahel where fonio is cultivated), Pierre Thiam is your shining light. He launched Yolélé Foods in 2017, which specialises in fonio and sells its products on Amazon, Thrive Market and selected Whole Foods stores. But, more importantly, his ultimate goal is to construct the world’s first fonio factory in Senegal in order to build a supply chain from areas such as Kedougou to the West. If realised, this ancient ‘miracle’ grain would be easier to get hold of, and would give hope of a successful future to its impoverished growers.