White fonio (Digitaria exilis) from Burkina Faso is cultivated during the dry season in the tropical regions, where median temperatures oscillate between 25 and 30 degrees C. Considered one of the most important local species in West Africa, this product has a fundamental role during the “soudure”, the period between harvest and the new cultivations, which is the most difficult period of the year to find food products.
Indeed, this annual plant that grows up to 80 cm tall adapts well to poor, dry soil, thanks to its highly developed root system. When mature, the stalk lies on the ground. At that point the plant is harvested, usually by hand: this work is long and difficult, because it is done with a scythe and calls for the stalks to be gathered in fasces immediately, to ease transportation. The fasces then must be handled with great care because the grains, which are very small, fall to the ground easily. After about two weeks the stalks are dry and can then be beaten to separate the grains: both men and women use hard clubs to separate the stalks that are then used to feed the animals. The grains, on the other hand, are shelled and, before being stored, are stamped on by the women in order to remove the husks.
In Burkina Faso, white fonio is mainly cultivated by the Bobo community in the Houet and Comoé Provinces. There is a precise procedure for the cultivation and processing of this kind of grain: both the harvest and separation of the grains from the stalks represent festive moments, where the entire community comes together to dance. This plant is highly prized as well by the Peul community: one legend recounts that when the first Peul forefather appeared he had a pastor’s staff in his right hand and a sprout of fonio in his left.
Due to the long and complex processing that it requires and the low productivity of the plant, today the cultivation of fonio is progressively decreasing, so much so that it has become marginal in some areas.
Usually, the plant is accompanied by bean leaves and is considered a refined grain. There is even a saying that goes “With fonio, the cook needs never be ashamed”. Finally, the plant also has medicinal qualities: fonio, when conserved for two years after the harvest and mixed with butter, can cure some common skin problems.