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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I, Grains
times, some people have made side-by-side comparisons of dishes made with fonio and common rice and have greatly preferred the fonio.
Fonio is also one of the most nutritious of all grains. Its seed is rich in methionine and cystine, amino acids vital to human health and deficient in today's major cereals: wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, barley, and rye. This combination of nutrition and taste could be of outstanding future importance. Most valuable of all, however, is fonio's potential for reducing human misery during "hungry times."
Certain fonio varieties mature so quickly that they are ready to harvest long before all other grains. For a few critical months of most years these become a "grain of life." They are perhaps the world's fastest maturing cereal, producing grain just 6 or 8 weeks after they are planted. Without these special fonio types, the annual hungry season would be much more severe for West Africa. They provide food early in the growing season, when the main crops are still too immature to harvest and the previous year's production has been eaten.
Other fonio varieties mature more slowly—typically in 165-180 days. By planting a range of quick and slow types farmers can have grain available almost continually. They can also increase their chances of getting enough food to live on under even the most changeable and unreliable growing conditions.
Of the two species, white fonio (Digitaria exilis) is the most widely used. It can be found in farmers' fields from Senegal to Chad. It is grown particularly on the upland plateau of central Nigeria (where it is generally known as "acha") as well as in neighboring regions.
The other species, black fonio (Digitaria iburua), is restricted to the Jos-Bauchi Plateau of Nigeria as well as to northern regions of Togo and Benin.3 Its restricted distribution should not be taken as a measure of relative inferiority: black fonio may eventually have as much or even greater potential than its now better-known relative.
Unlike finger millet, African rice, sorghum, and other native grains, fonio is not in serious decline. Indeed, it is well positioned for improved production. First, it is still widely cultivated and is well known. Second, it is highly esteemed. (In Nigeria's Plateau State, for example, the present 20,000-ton production is only a quarter of the projected state demand.4) Third, it tolerates remarkably poor soil and will grow
Both have white seeds but black fonio has black or dark brown spikelets.