A gluten-free grain that grows in Africa’s impoverished and semi-arid Sahel region is taking off as a health food in New York, the Senegalese chef who masterminded its revival said Monday, outlining plans to almost double production by 2023.
Pierre Thiam began exporting fonio to New York last year, hoping to help smallholder communities in the Sahel, which stretches from Mauritania and Mali in the west to Sudan and Eritrea in the east and is home to more than 100 million people.
The grain is now on the menus of more than 60 New York restaurants and will soon be in all the city’s Whole Foods stores, according to an executive at Yolele Foods, the company he co-founded.
“It’s a grain that could play an important role in some of the poorest regions in the world. The Sahel, nothing grows in that region, but fonio grows abundantly,” Thiam said at the international Slow Food festival in the Italian city of Turin.
“It’s also great for the environment. It matures in 60 days and grows with very little water. There’s even a nickname they have for fonio — the lazy farmers’ crop,” he said.
Thiam told Reuters he hoped to expand annual production from 600,000 tons to a million tons over the next five years.
He wants to have 7,000 families in Senegal producing the crop by 2020, and also plans to expand production to Burkina Faso.
Yolele Foods describes fonio as a “gluten-free, nutrient rich, ancient grain that takes just 5 minutes to cook.” Its website includes recipes for everything from fonio breakfast cereal to kimchi with fonio.
“When we rolled out at Whole Foods Harlem they built a display for us within the first couple weeks because we were selling out so quickly,” said the company’s director of business development Claire Alsup.
Thiam, who opened his first restaurant in New York in 1997, said changing weather patterns had hit the crops commonly grown in the Sahel, but fonio grew quickly even in poor soil and dry conditions.
The crop was largely abandoned under French rule when local farmers were made to grow peanuts and grains such as wheat were imported, but is now being rediscovered, he said.
Thiam said he was aware that popular demand for traditional grains such as fonio and millet could push up prices, putting them out of reach of local consumers.
“We’re conscious of that. We definitely want the first beneficiaries to be the smallholder communities of West Africa,” he said.