Could the healthy grain fonio be headed to the UK?

Challenges like supply and quality control plagued the food, but an Italian firm is making moves to commercialise it.

23 July 2018
image credit: Instagram @yolelefoods

Fonio is the ancient African grain that could be a contender for replacing quinoa.

Food Spark wrote about its credentials last year – it's easily digestible, gluten-free and contains more essential amino acids than quinoa.

There were problems with supply as it was challenging to harvest, as well as issues with quality control, but on the plus side it grew well on arid soil and required little water.

However, these challenges may be about to change if Italian firm Oba has anything to do with it.

Flour and fonio snacks

A request for fonio to be approved as a novel food in Europe has been made and the deadline for the European Food Safety Authority to object has already passed. Oba is confident that it will get a positive opinion.

The company has plans to sell the grain on its website, but is also in discussions with retail distributors.

But it’s not stopping there. Oba is also working on commercialising the grain not just by selling the product, but by also turning it into flour and a line of fonio-based snacks.

While fonio might be better recognised over in the US thanks to Senagalese chef Pierre Thiam putting his brand of the grain into Whole Foods, over in Europe and the UK the Italian firm is putting in the work to ensure consumers get familiar. Think recipes like a fonio-based tabbouleh or using the fonio flour to make pizza, as well as food pairing suggestions.

But what about the nightmare of harvesting the grain as we mentioned? It’s complicated, time-consuming and highly labour intensive due to its small size.

Oba believes it’s ready to tackle this issue with investment in technology and equipment to alleviate manual work and increase productivity.

It has also created what is describes as a reactive and scalable business model, working with different partners throughout the supply chain for sourcing, packaging, milling and storing to give it the flexibility to upsize when momentum grows.

Fair trade

Availability of fonio is stable and it has a reliable network of suppliers in West Africa, according to the company.

“Fonio production and processing is not as industrialised as the other grains are, but we believe that is the strength of fonio,” a spokesperson for Oba told Food Spark’s sister site Food Navigator. “It’s natural and directly connected with local farmers’ ancient agricultural tradition.

“Having a stable supply means good partnerships and planning… It will clearly require investments to expand harvesting and processing capacity, but this is what our mission is all about.”

Fair trade practices are also fundamental, Oba’s spokesperson said, and they believe it’s important for the local African communities to retain the ownership and leadership of land and production.

Data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation show that Guinea is the biggest producer of fonio, harvesting over a million tonnes in 2016, while Nigeria and the Ivory Coast fill out the top three.

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