Black fonio and white fonio are two millet species that have been cultivated in West Africa for over 5,000 years. Black fonio (Digitaria iburua), also known as iburu or fonio ga, is an important traditional food in Togo, Benin, and Nigeria.
It is one of the world’s fastest maturing cereals, and it grows well in poor, sandy soils that are not fertile enough for pearl millet, sorghum, or other cereals. Fonio is particularly important for food security, as it provides a nutritious staple in the “hungry period,” the time of the year before other crops are ready for harvest. It is also an important substitute when other foods are in short supply or are too expensive.
Black fonio is an annual grass that grows up to 140 centimeters in height and has reddish or dark brown grains. Along with white fonio (which is more widely cultivated), it has the smallest grains of all the cereals known collectively as millet. Rich in the amino acids methionine and cysteine, fonio’s nutrient composition is unlike that of other grains. The husked grains of black fonio contain up to 11.8% protein, quite a bit more than for white fonio.
Fonio has a delicate nutty and earthy flavor and is made into porridge or couscous, served as a side with hot stews, and used in salads. When ground, fonio can be mixed with other flours to make bread. Black fonio, like white fonio, is notoriously difficult to husk. It is most frequently cultivated to produce tchapalo, a kind of beer.
Due to a lack of research and development, fonio cultivation and processing still rely on traditional methods: The time-consuming, labor-intensive methods of hand harvesting, de-husking, milling, and processing the tiny grains have contributed to fonio’s decline. Some people in rural areas of West Africa persist in cultivating black fonio for home consumption, but it remains difficult to find on the market, even in cities. Northern Nigeria, Benin, and Togo are the most imporant areas for the cultivation of black fonio.