Company bets on surging demand for West African ancient grain fonio in US market

Pierre Thiam, founder of Yolélé, with some of the company's products.

Pierre Thiam, founder of Yolélé, with some of the company’s products.

Fonio – a gluten-free grain with many nutritional benefits – has been cultivated as a subsistence crop in West Africa for thousands of years. It is drought-resistant, can grow without the support of fertiliser and restores organic matter in fallow soil.

US-based African-food company Yolélé is tapping into rising demand for fonio. Its fonio products are currently available at over 2,000 grocery stores in the US, including Whole Foods and Target. Yolélé recently partnered with Mali-based agribusiness company Mali Shi to establish a new venture, called West African Ancient Grains, that plans to process thousands of tonnes of fonio in Mali to meet increasing global interest in the superfood.

We asked Pierre Thiam, founder of Yolélé, about his business and demand for fonio in the US market. Below are slightly edited excerpts from the interview.

Give us an overview of Yolélé’s business.

Yolélé started by selling bags of fonio at a single New York City store in 2017. Today our fonio is sold in over 2,000 stores across the United States. We also use fonio to make pilaf mixes and now fonio chips, a salty snack line that we introduced in 2021.

We are also present in the foodservice sector. That part of the business slowed during Covid, but we expect it to increase in the coming months and years.

Our consumers fall into different categories: adventurous eaters searching for unfamiliar cooking styles; health- and nutrition-driven shoppers; West Africans yearning for a taste of home; and African Americans hoping to explore their heritage through food.

We’ve had a lot of interest from other countries too. We expect to sell in Europe and elsewhere before too long.

Yolélé has now partnered with Mali-based Mali Shi to establish West African Ancient Grains. Tell us more about this venture.

We created Yolélé to provide income opportunities for smallholder farmer families in Africa. When we started, we thought all we’d have to do was create demand, and farmers would start making money. But when we looked into the supply chain for crops like fonio, we realised that the state of processing was a hindrance to developing a large market. We knew we’d have to introduce processing capacity at an industrial scale if we wanted to achieve the impact we hoped for.

We knew we needed to work with local partners in a fonio-growing country that had an industrial mindset and agri-processing experience. All roads pointed to Mali Shi. They were already operating an industrial-scale facility providing global customers with food-grade shea butter, supplied by their sourcing network of over 20,000 women, almost all of whom live in fonio-growing families. We met, we felt an affinity, and decided to establish West African Ancient Grains together.

West African Ancient Grains will contract directly with smallholder organisations to grow fonio paddy. We will buy that fonio paddy and turn it into fonio and fonio flour to sell to industrial customers. Those customers will use our output to make all sorts of grain-based foods.

A Senegalese village chief holds up the fonio grain. Photo by Richard Nyberg

How will West African Ancient Grains tie in with Yolélé’s existing business in the US?

Part of the tie-in is assuring Yolélé of a reliable source of supply for high-quality fonio for its products. But on another level, West African Ancient Grains allows us to achieve our fundamental purpose of generating traceable income for smallholders engaged in climate-smart, sustainable, biodiverse agriculture. Efficient, reliable processing was the missing link between smallholders and global markets.

In a way, Yolélé is West African Ancients Grains’ marketing arm. Distributing hip products that feature fonio is a way of creating awareness and consumer interest, and thereby spurring demand from other food manufacturers.

Describe the demand for fonio in the US market, both from retail customers and bigger food manufacturers.

Demand for fonio is growing every day, as measured by store count, online sales, and even social media engagement. We are dealing with the largest retailers in the country now.

On the manufacturer side, we’re looking at interest right now from smaller, more nimble companies that want to be on-trend. And we’re in discussions with larger companies that have corporate commitments to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The people commissioned to execute on that front have found that it’s hard to do that. Our conversations with them are about how using West African Ancient Grains’ products can allow them to achieve traceable impact, easily.

We see nothing but clear open space in front of us. If large food manufacturers use even a tiny amount of fonio in their formulations, the impact in West Africa on people and landscape would be formidable.