Frequently referred to as "the new quinoa," fonio is one of the oldest grains cultivated in Africa. A member of the millet family, fonio is also one of the smallest grains, resembling sand when uncooked, and has been prized across West Africa for more than 5,000 years. While it's native to West Africa, grown primarily in Guinea and also in the Sahel region below the Sahara Desert, fonio has only recently been introduced to the U.S. market in 2017 by the company Yolélé. This ancient grain is small, but mighty, providing tremendous environmental and economic benefits to the communities where it's grown, as well as nutritional benefits to those who eat it.
The Environmental Benefits of Growing Fonio
Fonio is exceptionally climate friendly. Known as the "lazy farmer's crop", it's very easy to grow in semi-arid climates and requires little input (i.e. water, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers) to grow compared to other grains. Fonio also has the ability to grow even in extreme and harsh conditions such as periods of drought or floods, common occurrences in its native growing region. It also grows quickly, reaching maturity within only six to eight weeks of growing. In addition to being easy to grow, the fonio crop "also helps regenerate the soil due to its deep roots, which restore the topsoil and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," says Chef Pierre Thiam, cofounder of Yolélé, author of The Fonio Cookbook, and Senegalese chef known for bringing West African cuisine to the global fine dining world. Thiam adds that once the fonio is harvested, the roots are left and continue to nourish the soil.
Although this grain is easy to grow, it's notably labor intensive to clean and process: Because the tiny seeds lodge in the ground, a lot of sand needs to be washed out. Fonio has a hull (the outer layer of the grain) that must be removed before eating, which traditionally has been done manually with a mortar and pestle (it's time-consuming and results in about 40 percent waste, according to Thiam). After harvesting and removing the hull, the grains are washed, steamed, and dried. Thiam notes that this laborious process is one of the primary reasons it's taken time for this grain to gain popularity. But thanks to modern technology, there are now more efficient ways to process the grain through mechanization.
It's Good for the Farmers Who Grow It, Too
Fonio has also had a significant, positive economic impact for the West African farmers who grow it. According to Thiam, the fonio farmers in Senegal live in one of the most impoverished regions in the world, and increasing the market demand for fonio has the potential to change their lives for the better. Many communities in West Africa rely on farming to survive, but don't have access to markets that can buy their harvests and enable them to make a living. Thiam's primary goal with Yolélé is to connect smallholder farmers, who are primarily women, with local and global markets "so they can support themselves from agriculture while also increasing food sovereignty in the region."
Fonio's Many Health Benefits
In addition to being a highly sustainable crop, fonio is also a super healthy whole grain. Some of the top benefits of eating fonio include:
Similar to quinoa, fonio is naturally gluten free, making it an ideal grain for those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.
Fonio also scores low on the glycemic index, meaning when eaten alone, it is less likely to cause spikes in blood sugar levels.
Fonio also contains many essential micronutrients, such as B-vitamins, potassium, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron.
Fonio is a unique source of two important amino acids, methionine and cysteine, not typically found in other grains. The body uses amino acids to make proteins that in turn help us grow, repair tissues, provide energy, and much more.
How to Cook with Fonio
Fonio can be prepared easily on the stove or in the microwave and is incredibly fast-cooking due to its small size—it's ready to eat in just 5 minutes! A member of the millet family, fonio is somewhat similar in flavor to millet, but is nuttier and less earthy. It's super-versatile and can be used in both sweet and savory recipes. Thiam says "fonio takes on the flavor of how it's prepared," making this grain a beautiful blank canvas to use in nearly any cuisine and with any flavor profile. Enjoy it warm or cold; simply cooked as a stand-alone grain; made into a creamy porridge; ground into a flour; incorporated into plant-based burgers; used as bread crumbs; or even added to baked goods. Similar to other gluten-free grains, fonio can be found in flour form and used in gluten-free baking or mixed with all-purpose flour to add another element of nutrition and flavor.
Chef's tip: When preparing fonio at home, for an even nuttier flavor, toast the fonio grains in a saucepan, either in a dry pan or with a small amount of oil, over low heat before adding water (or other cooking liquid).
Fonio is available to order directly from yolele.com as well as from online marketplaces such as Walmart, Amazon, and Thrive Market. It's also found at all Whole Foods locations and nearly 1500 supermarkets nationwide.