Being a semi-arid region, the Sahel, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east, has over the years suffered some of the worst drought and famine situations to ever happen in the whole of Africa.
Unfortunately, the crisis isn’t getting any better, especially due to the sustained deforestation in the region, which has seen significant portions of North and West Africa swallowed by the neighboring Sahara Desert. This has ultimately made an already dire situation worse.
But in the midst of all the suffering, researchers in the region have discovered a special type of edible grain that has the potential to overturn the drought situation in the whole of the Sahel belt. Fonio, a highly nutritious, gluten-free grain, is now considered the “miracle” crop with the potential to substitute the popular quiona (another popular West African grain) and significantly improve the region’s economy.
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The Fonio grain, which is said to have originated in Mali, is considered “the seed of the universe”, from which the earth sprouted. According to CNN, the seed was commonly found in the ancient Egyptian pyramids and burial sites. Now, it is gaining popularity across the Sahel region, with countries like Senegal adopting it as an alternative source of food, especially in the rural areas.
In fact, a local NGO calling itself SOS Sahel is already equipping young people in the region with the necessary skills and apparatus to produce Fonio in bulk. However, the NGO has had to grapple with deep-rooted traditional believes and misguided perceptions about the native grain.
Despite its great potential and immeasurable nutritional value, Fonio has often been labeled as a poor man’s food, mainly by the people living in urban areas across the Sahel. In some countries like Senegal, there are all manner of mystical beliefs about the plant.
For instance, some people believe that growing the Fonio plant around one’s homestead helps to keep evil spirits away. So, many people want nothing to do with the crop, leave alone have it on the menu.
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But according to Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese chef who now exports the grain to America, Fonio has the potential to turn around the Sahel’s economy.
“It’s nutritious, particularly rich in methionine and cysteine, two amino acids that are deficient in most other major grains: barley, rice or wheat to name a few,” Thiam said at the recently concluded TedGlobal Conference in Tanzania.
Earlier this year, the Senegalese chef entered into a contract with America’s largest natural food supplier, Whole Foods, which is currently distributing Fonio grains in different parts of the U.S.
Thiam is also determined to introduce Fonio to other international markets, and is unwavering in his resolve to see the native grain being developed into different types of foods for the global market. Already, he has developed three Fonio products: crackers, pastas and cereals, which he plans to introduce to the international market soon.
Perhaps it’s time African governments, especially those in the Sahel region, considered incorporating Fonio into their efforts to make the region food secure. Luckily, Fonio is a highly resilient crop that can easily thrive “where nothing else will grow”.