Fonio, an ancient West African cereal, closely resembles a type of millet. It’s rich in amino acids like methionine, cysteine and leucine and because it’s low in sugar it’s popular among diabetics (some studies show it’s an excellent grain for treating diabetes). It’s also high in iron and contains no gluten.
New York chef Pierre Thiam is hoping with a few marketing adjustments, fonio will be as popular as quinoa. Thiam was recently profiled in The Guardian for his efforts to launch fonio into American cooking. In 2009 he published Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal, and in 2011 he launched the AfroEats festival to celebrate Senegal’s rich food culture. He hopes he can popularize Senegalese cuisine the way Mario Batali did for Italian food or Bobby Flay did for Mexican and Southwest cuisine. West Africans eat fonio for breakfast as porridge, or mix it in with vegetables like we do with couscous.
While some farmers are trying to grow quinoa in the U.S., fonio crops in the U.S. are practically non-existent. Fonio is primarily grown in West African countries like Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Senegal. It’s a desert grass that can resist high heat and desert storms and can be cultivated in poor soils, making it a great crop to fight hunger in drought-ridden nations. It requires no pesticides, making it organic as well.
Still there are some who worry a surge in fonio’s popularity could cause problems. In “The Dark Truth Behind The Popular Superfood, Quinoa” Jill Richardson writes that quinoa’s popularity “spawned a growing source of controversy, following reports that high global quinoa prices put the crop out of reach for the people who grow it.” Tanya Kerrsen, a Bolivia-based researcher forFood First, told Richardson, “… whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South.”
It’s possible fonio could have a similar problem. But Thiam has already begun the process of importing fonio for mainstream markets by the end of this year, and says his business is fair trade in the sense that “They trust me and I trust them.”