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Fonio For Food

D 15 juillet 2022     H 06:30     A     C 0 messages

Though laborious, growing fonio, one of Africa’s oldest cultivated grains, is simple and reliable. It grows naturally where mainstream crops such as wheat and rice are harder to cultivate. It is also well adapted to the climate, nutritious, tastes good and can be stored far longer than other grains. Fonio has long been misunderstood by western researchers, who labelled it “hungry rice” because it was eaten more during periods of food scarcity due to its quick and dependable growth. However, fonio not only satisfies hunger much more than the dominant grains but also has a nuttier flavour and texture that they savour.

The benefits of fonio are so marked that academics and policymakers are now calling for the grain – alongside other indigenous foods, such as Ethiopia’s teff, as well as cassava and various millets and legumes – to be embraced more widely across Africa to improve food security. These ancient foods, with their greater nutritional benefits and resilience to drought, could break the continent’s reliance on imported wheat, rice and maize, which often do not grow easily in Africa but now dominate people’s diets. The African Development Bank’s proposal to improve food security by investing $1bn (£840m) in growing wheat in Africa has been met with scepticism because so little of the continent is suited to growing the crop.

Makhtar Diop, managing director of the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank, said last month that these crops were being under-utilised.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, the diets were not wheat-based. They’re shifting ; they’re becoming wheat-based, unfortunately, which is leading to non-communicable diseases, obesity and all sorts,” says Michel Ghanem, an agronomist. “You have lots of indigenous crops – like teff, fonio, sorghum – that people still eat today but have been neglected by funding agencies, the international research organisations, but definitely not by consumers. And it’s now that we should invest in these because they could close that food gap.”

Researchers say these neglected foods have several nutritional benefits, often with lower glycemic index ratings than refined flours and white rice, while also having important micronutrients. Research in the 1990s into neglected African crops by the US National Research Council found that fonio and finger millet were rich in the essential amino acid methionine, which is often lacking in western diets, while teff was high in protein, amino acids and iron.

Senegal imports about 70% of its rice, which is a key ingredient of the nation’s modern diet.Senegal produced only 5,100 tonnes of fonio in 2019, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, with most of it growing around the south-eastern Kédougou region. However, there are moves to increase production, and neighbouring Guinea produced 530,000 tonnes of the grain. Fonio has recently become more fashionable, appearing on restaurant menus in the wealthier neighbourhoods of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. It is being recommended by doctors for diabetes patients, and also being promoted by aid organisations and health food brands.

Edie Mukiibi, vice-president of Slow Food International, which campaigns to protect threatened local food cultures, says imperialism imposed “monoculture” farming on Africa and other colonised regions of the world, destroying biodiversity in agriculture.

Under colonialism, large tracts of land were taken over for plantations growing cash crops for export, such as sugar, tea and cocoa, while in the 20th century the “green revolution” promoted the idea of farming high-yield grains to tackle hunger.

“The plantations kept on growing, supported by the colonial governments in the global south, and they did not contribute to biodiversity. They cleared large areas of diverse land, which initially was covered by the traditional intercropped African farming systems or the ‘milpa’ systems in Latin America, like in Mexico,”

he says. This, Mukiibi adds, changed diets because people could no longer forage on land cleared for the plantations. He says the indigenous grains are far better suited to surviving when grown together with other crops, unlike mainstream imports, which require the ecosystem to be adapted to ensure the right conditions.

There is big potential for fonio growing, you can grow as much as you want, the yield is much better than rice or maize – the only problem is that we need help improving the processing for harvest. Research will be needed into how technology can reduce the manual toll of cutting the fonio grass and removing the husks.

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