White fonio (Digitaria exilis) is a nutritious grain from West Africa, where is has been cultivated for over 5,000 years. It is an important traditional food in Senegal, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau, as well as other countries in the region. For the Dogon people of Mali, fonio is “the seed of the universe”— the grain at the root of all existence.
White fonio grows 30-75 centimeters in height and has the smallest grains of all the cereals known collectively as millet. 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. Different varieties of fonio mature at different rates, and the early varieties (which mature in 60-75 days) are particularly important for food security, as they provide a nutritious staple in the “hungry period,” the time of the year before other crops are ready for harvest. Fonio is also an important sibstitute when other foods are in short supply or are too expensive. However, fonio is more than a fallback food: in Kédougou, Senegal, fonio is served to guests of honor and nicknamed ñamu buur, “food for royalty.” Some of the most common early varieties of white fonio are mono, kouroukeleni, peazo, and berele.
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. It can also be brewed into beer or ground and mixed with other flours to make bread. Rich in the amino acids methionine and cysteine, fonio’s nutrient composition is unlike that of other grains.
When the French colonized West Africa, the cultivation of monocultures (e.g. peanuts for export) was enforced and indigenous cereals, whose local value was largely ignored, were laregely abandoned. The legacy of French colonialism continues to impact West African food systems, with imported foods playing a central role in the local diet—even today, Senegal’s national dish, chebu jen, is made with broken rice, which began being imported from Indochina during the Colonial period.
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. Due to its flavor, high nutritional content, and short growth cycle, people in some rural areas of the Sahel persist in cultivating fonio for home consumption, but it remains difficult to find in metropolitan areas like Dakar. In order to prevent its extinction, cooperatives in Mali and Senegal are working to promote fonio—especially the early varieties—and bring it to local and foreign markets.