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Fonio, the 'seed of the universe' that could revolutionise African agriculture

Design: Didier Kassaï for Heidi.news

There are few places in the world like Africa where both the desert is advancing and where hunger is rampant. Straddling the shores of West Africa and New York, the Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam is pinning his hopes on a small ancestral African seed: fonio. For the past three years, he has been its ambassador across the Atlantic. For him, it would be the beginning of a real African agricultural revolution.

This article was originally published in French on Heidi.news. It is the tenth episode of an exploration entitled "11 African Solutions for the Future World".

It is so ancient that it is nicknamed the "seed of the universe". Cultivated for more than 5,000 years in Africa, fonio is at the heart of many African legends and rituals still practised today. A good luck charm for some and a grain served to distinguished guests by others, some also attribute extraordinary medicinal virtues to it.

This grain, "food for royalty", is even said to have been found in the vaults buried under the pyramids of ancient Egypt. There was a time when fonio was so precious that it was a good omen to take it with you to the afterlife.

In West Africa, fonio was sown everywhere in the fields and eaten by everyone. But the beautiful agricultural history of the most African of seeds came to an end with the colonisation and the introduction of Western cultures at the end of the 19th century. 120 years later, the rupture of identity was consummated. "Go to Dakar [the capital of Senegal], and the Senegalese will tell you: ‘Fonio is the seed of the peasants, of the common people. We want to eat chopsticks and croissants. But we don't produce wheat. We import it! Even today, we want to eat like colonists,’” says the offended chef Pierre Thiam.

A network of 800 fonio growers

The Senegalese chef, who has been living in New York for thirty years, has set himself the mission of restoring fonio's reputation. In 2017, his company, Yolélé Foods, introduced Americans to the "seed of the universe", marketed in modern packaging that is attracting a growing number of consumers. The sales of the chef, owner of his restaurant in New York, at the crossroads between West African and contemporary cuisine, amount to tens of tonnes each month. Pierre Thiam imports these thousands of kilos of fonio from West Africa. Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Senegal. In three years, the entrepreneurial chef has built up a network of more than 800 fonio growers, suppliers to Yolélé Foods. Pierre Thiam:

"As a chef in New York, I realised that I had the opportunity to open up international markets for these African farmers, who are among the poorest in the world, and in doing so, increase their income.

Read the article in French: Le fonio, «graine de l'univers» qui pourrait révolutionner l'agriculture africaine

The chef has now become fonio's ambassador to the United States. In love with this grain, which he discovered as a child in his grandmother's dishes during his holidays at her home in Casamance, a region in southern Senegal, Pierre Thiam has since been driven by a deep conviction: fonio is not just a seed, it is a cure. Cultivating fonio would cure many of the ills that plague Africa today.

A rampart against hunger and desertification

"Fonio grows in the poorest soils. It doesn't need a lot of water to grow. No matter the climate, it will grow and grow very fast: it can be mature in only two months! Farmers in West Africa know that they can rely on fonio," explains Pierre Thiam. In a region hit hard by global warming, where the desert is advancing and gnawing away at the arable land, fonio appears like a bulwark. So Pierre Thiam promotes the cultivation of this grain among West African producers during his travels.

In Kédougou, in the south-east of Senegal, a cooperative of women producers, grouped together under the name Koba Club de Kédougou, has even refocused its entire activity of processing local products around fonio. No more palm oil, baobab juice and batik: the "seed of the universe" is more profitable and, above all, provides them with food security, which is often lacking during the lean season.

Clément Jous, agro-ecology project manager for SWISSAID:

"Between July and the new harvest in September, many families find it difficult to find food, to have even one meal a day. Fonio is a lean season seed, one of the few grains that can be grown during this period. Developing its cultivation in Africa would provide a real solution to this recurring food problem.”

Africa remains the continent most affected by undernutrition. According to the United Nations, 21% of Africans are confronted with it, which is more than 256 million people.

A weapon against hunger and desertification, fonio is also endowed with exceptional nutritional qualities. So much so that some people call it the perfect protein. A source of fibre but low in calories, fonio is rich in methionine and cysteine, two amino acids that are lacking in all its competing grains. To top it all off, fonio is gluten-free. Its place on the booming American "healthy food" market was obvious. Pierre Thiam always has a smile on his face when he thinks back on the sale of his very first stock of fonio in a food hall in Harlem three years ago. "It all went in three hours and we started to become champions in our category," he says proudly.

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Creating a revolution through cooking

Since then, Yolélé Foods fonio bags have been distributed in more than 500 outlets across the United States. Restaurant chains such as True Kitchen also offer fonio dishes. In short, Pierre Thiam has launched the "seed of the universe" to conquer America. "We also intend to sell some throughout Europe. The European Union has already agreed to the sale," says the boss. But the most important battle in its conquest remains Africa. "In the capitals of the continent, the demand is there. We have been contacted to be distributed in Africa. The colonial mentality is being deconstructed. City-dwellers are starting to want to consume African rather than Western products," he says, hoping to see his fonio soon distributed where his whole story began.

On the Senegalese shores where he was born, Pierre Thiam is also preparing what he warns with some emphasis will be "a revolution". Senegalese are building the very first modern fonio processing plant, so that the production of the "seed of the universe" will be industrialised directly on the continent. Production is expected to start next year. Pierre Thiam:

"My ambition is to contribute to this revolution: to transform Africans into exporters rather than importers and to make African farmers no longer seen as the last of the class, but as the future actors of a change in the world food system... Africa's small farmers, who are being killed by the current agricultural system, are the future. They are the ones who have the solution to diversify our diet. They are the last ones who still respect the rhythm of nature and the seasons. Their potential must be revealed."

For him, the industrialisation of fonio in Africa and its export to the West is only a first step towards the endogenous development of the continent through its food products that are forgotten or unknown abroad. Yolélé Foods' teams are focusing on nere seeds and moringa. Two plants that are still typically West African, with exceptional virtues and which today remain largely under-exploited.

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Didier Kassaï is a self-taught illustrator, watercolorist and cartoonist, born in 1974 in the Central African Republic. His first comic book, L'Odyssée de Mongou, was published by l'Harmattan BD in 2014. The following year he published Tempête sur Bangui, in two volumes La Boîte à Bulles. For this series on African solutions, he created eleven original illustrations for Heidi.news.

11 African solutions for the future world