Potential to export Mali’s fonio to superfood consumers globally

A woman in the town of Douentza, Mali inspects a fonio plant to determine its readiness for harvesting.

A woman in the town of Douentza, Mali inspects a fonio plant to determine its readiness for harvesting. Picture: West Africa Trade & Investment Hub

Fonio – a gluten-free grain boasting many nutritional benefits – has been cultivated 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.

According to a report by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), there are clear opportunities to export fonio from Mali as consumers around the world consider this ancient grain a superfood.

Mali is the world’s third-largest producer of fonio behind Guinea (500,000 metric tonnes) and Nigeria (90,000 metric tonnes). Its government is targeting an annual average national production of just under 42,000 metric tonnes for the period 2019-2023. Average yields are 600 kilograms per hectare. Fonio is a resilient crop that can grow and mature in depleted and shallow soils in as little as 70 days.

However, the IFC says without significant improvements in postharvest processing efficiency and quality control, export markets will remain out of reach for Malian producers, processors and exporters.

One business taking advantage of Mali’s fonio potential is African-food company Yolélé. Based in the US, its products are currently available at over 2,000 grocery stores in the US, including Whole Foods and Target. Earlier this year, Yolélé partnered with Mali-based agribusiness company Mali Shi to establish a new venture, West African Ancient Grains, which plans to process thousands of tonnes of fonio in the country to meet increasing global interest in the superfood.

The crop plays a vital role in the food security of rural households in several areas of Mali. Farming households typically plant fonio once they have harvested their rice, sorghum or millet. Given a limited supply of quality fonio, it is considered a luxury and reserved for special occasions or those with dietary needs. Although there is room for improvement in fonio yields, technology and innovative practices must be embraced to reduce the processing burden (threshing, winnowing, milling and cleaning), otherwise expanding production would be futile. The main challenge facing the value chain comes after harvest. Continued investment in research and development, as well as adopting technologies designed for similar crops – such as teff, a cereal native to Ethiopia – could help improve the fonio transformation in Mali.

Without a more structured value chain where producers are not merely growing fonio for survival but as raw material for modern processors, banks and private investors will have difficulty supplying funding.

This article contains slightly edited excerpts from the IFC’s Creating markets in Mali report.