West African fonio company seeks piece of global gluten-free market

Thanks to fonio’s nutritional profile, demand has been growing in regions such as the US and European Union.

Thanks to fonio’s nutritional profile, demand has been growing in regions such as the US and European Union.

Fonio, a gluten-free grain with numerous nutritional benefits, has been cultivated in West Africa for thousands of years. Drought-resistant and capable of growing without the support of fertilisers, it restores organic matter in fallow soil. Despite its long history in the region, it remains under-commercialised.

Sustainable African Foods – a partnership between businessman Simballa Sylla, former CEO of Mali-based shea butter company Mali Shi, and US-based African foods company Yolélé, co-founded by chef Pierre Thiam and Philip Teverow – seeks to tap into regional and international demand for fonio. The company is setting up the world’s first industrial-scale fonio processing plant in Mali to produce processed fonio grains and flour.

Jaco Maritz asked Sylla more about the company’s plans, the challenges associated with fonio production and its target market. Below are slightly edited excerpts.

How did your partnership with Yolélé come about?

A few years back, I received a call from a contact at the International Finance Corporation. He wanted me to meet with an American named Philip Teverow who was prospecting in Mali. A few hours later Phil came to our office. I scheduled the meeting to be for one hour but I think we ended up talking for more than two hours. He explained what he and chef Pierre Thiam were doing at Yolélé. I have not met anyone who knows more about fonio than Phil and Pierre. They are truly passionate about it. That meeting was when and where we decided to go into fonio.

We now share the same vision towards making fonio “sexy” and for it to contribute to food security. Since this past October, I left Mali Shi and am devoting all my energy, as CEO of Sustainable African Foods, to materialise our common vision.

Describe the fonio industry in Mali and the broader region.

In Mali, as in the rest of West Africa, fonio is mostly consumed within the communities that grow it. Farmers will only sell what exceeds their family’s dietary needs. Due to this limited and unpredictable supply, there isn’t much fonio processing infrastructure.

To turn fonio into consumable food, several steps are typically required. These include hulling the grains, removing the bran and germ, as well as eliminating any sand or other impurities. It helps to precook it too. We have learned that the equipment required to do all of this is wildly expensive. It has taken us quite some time and money to figure out what equipment to use and how to calibrate it.

Small-scale fonio processors typically rely on manual processes and imprecise equipment, which can be slow and inefficient. This outdated approach, which is commonly used throughout the region, often results in high levels of post-harvest loss, contributing to elevated prices.

At what stage is the business currently?

Final tests are now being conducted to fine tune the equipment to properly process fonio. Hopefully we will start with construction of the factory within the next few months. We aim to be ready by the last quarter 2024.

However, Sustainable African Foods has already been establishing partnerships with smallholder farmers in Mali to provide Yolélé with fonio paddy. We are currently developing plans to support smallholder farmers in increasing their yields, limiting losses, and improving the quality of their produce. We are actively preparing farmers to introduce new techniques in the upcoming season.

Can you provide an overview of the target market for Sustainable African Foods’ fonio?

Within West Africa, and the continent in general, our goal is to push for greater fonio awareness and consumption. We strongly feel that fonio, a drought resistant crop that requires much less attention and time from farmers (in fact in some places they call it “the lazy farmer’s crop”) has a role to play in food security. By working with farmers and research institutes, we will increase yields. And with a modern factory, we will decrease the losses incurred during processing. All of this should increase production and decrease fonio’s market price for consumers.

We are also well positioned for the global market because Yolélé’s brand recognition is unmatchable in the fonio value chain. In addition, the global food industry’s interest in fonio has grown recently due to its attractive nutritional properties. Fonio flour is gathering steam among nutritionists and food scientists in developed countries due to its richness in amino acids. In 2022, the global gluten-free food market was estimated at US$6.2 billion. This market is expected to grow 7.5% annually over the next 10 years. At scale, Sustainable African Foods, in association with Yolélé, plans to capture part of that global market for gluten-free products.

As you can imagine, with the name Sustainable African Foods, we also intend to procure and process other agricultural products for the local, regional and international markets such as millet, sorghum, and bambara groundnuts.

Highlight some of the biggest challenges associated with starting a fonio processing venture in Mali.

Our biggest challenge (not specifically related to Mali) was the fact we decided to develop a new line of equipment that can clean and process the paddy to produce the best quality fonio grains at a large scale.

The second challenge was to attract funds to develop the project. We were fortunate enough to receive an initial grant from the USAID-funded West Africa Trade and Investment Hub to start working on the project.