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Headlines Published on 22 September 2006

Title Research project brings African grain to European tables

A project funded under the EU’s Research Programme explores properties of the African cereal fonio as a healthy and cheap addition to European diets, while at the same time generating incomes for local producers.

Fonio's tiny seeds prevented large-scale consumption until recent innovation made processing more economical. © CIRAD
Fonio's tiny seeds prevented large-scale consumption until recent innovation made processing more economical.
Have you ever had Djouka? Barring the fact that you are from Mali or Burkina Faso, visit often or simply have an acutely developed taste for West African cuisine, chances are you haven’t. However, that could change very soon depending on the success of a recent FP6 project.

The base ingredient for Djouka is fonio; you can be forgiven for never having heard of it. Fonio cereal is little known in Europe, but it is a major food staple for the people of West Africa. The EU project, known as FONIO, is working with local African growers to enhance production and bring the crop to the European market.

The FONIO project falls under the Specific International Scientific Cooperation Activities (INCO) rubric of FP6. It is managed by the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), and involves interdisciplinary research scientists from three European countries (France, Netherlands and Belgium) and 4 West African countries (Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Senegal). The project is expected to take three years to complete.

According to the CIRAD website, fonio is experiencing renewed interest in urban areas of Western Africa, particularly for its flavour and nutritional qualities. It has a composition similar to that of white rice, but is richer in magnesium, zinc and manganese than other cereals, as well as having high sulphur amino acid (methionine and cystine) content. Sulphur amino acids are crucial for proper heart function and nerve transmission, and cereals are an essential source of amino acids for people with low meat intake.

The overall objective of the project is to “improve quality and diversity of the fonio products to export and increase the incomes of the producers and the processors,” according to the project’s website. It also aims to increase the productivity at different stages in the commodity chain, i.e. adapted varieties, appropriated production and farming systems, innovation in post-harvest mechanisation, etc.

For many years fonio was an underutilised crop. Its small grains – each seed is only slightly larger than a grain of sand – made husking and processing a particularly tedious process. It takes approximately one to two hours to produce two kilograms of fonio by hand. That all changed with the advent of husking machines such as the "GMBF fonio huller" recently developed in cooperation between Guinea, Mali, Burkina and France.

During the initial stages of the project that began in January 2006, researchers will conduct extensive studies into the properties of the grain. The scientific and technical record of fonio is currently incomplete, according to researchers. They will also attempt to identify its commercial potential and ways to improve the quality of the product, in addition to seeking out other possible uses for the cereal.

Researchers are hoping such efforts will shore up regional trade and foster increased export for high quality white fonio and other value added products. At the same time they will study ways to improve competitiveness for local growers and farmers as a way to boost their incomes. In the long term, they plan to evaluate how a developed export market will impact the local commodity chain.

Jean-François Cruz, FONIO project coordinator, sees gaining a foothold in the European market as a multi–step process.

“The first step is to define quality criteria for precooked fonio, and determine consumer demand in Africa and Europe. As regards quality, sand (used for processing) in whitened (processed) fonio is still one of the main problems to be solved in order to produce quality fonio for sale in supermarkets and on the export market,” Mr Cruz says.

Fonio is considered one of the most ancient indigenous cereals of West Africa. The Dogon people of Mali believe the universe was created by exploding a single fonio grain. Some estimate cultivation began around 5000 BC. It grows in the Sahel belt, a semi–arid landscape located between the Sahara and tropical regions of central Africa that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Horn of Africa. Fonio sustains millions of people early in the growing season, and therefore can be considered as a coping strategy for increased household food security.

More information:

  • FONIO site
  • CIRAD site on Fonio

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