Fonio: It's Not Just a Famine Food
Late in 1990, I interviewed a farmer with a largish plot of fonio. It was just a few kilometers from Bo town, in central Sierra Leone. What especially intrigued me was that this was not, as I at first supposed, a poverty-stricken woman's attempt to grow a little food for household subsistence. It was instead a commercial venture, aimed at the Bo market. There, fonio sells (cup for cup) at a better price than rice. By selling her crop she would be able to buy a larger amount of rice. To me, this was a striking confirmation of the commercial potential of this almost entirely neglected crop. To the people who know it, fonio is treasured more highly than rice!
Birds may badly damage the crop in some areas; bird-scaring is usually necessary in those locations. The plants are also susceptible to smut and other fungal diseases.
It has been reported that fonio causes soil deterioration, but this appears to be a misperception. It is often sown on worn-out soils, sometimes even after cassava (the ultimate crop for degraded lands elsewhere). It is this association with poor soils that has given rise to the rumor, but the soils were in fact impoverished long before the fonio was put in.
Some groups dislike black fonio because, compared with the white form, it is more difficult to dehusk with the traditional pestle.
The seed loses its viability after two years.
Because of its small seed size, the harvest is very difficult to winnow. Sand tends to remain with the seed and produces gritty foods. It is therefore necessary to thresh fonio on a hard surface rather than on bare ground. Also, just before cooking, the grains are usually washed to rid them of any remaining sand.
Clearly, fonio is important, has many agronomic and nutritional virtues, and could have an impressive future. This crop deserves much greater attention. Modern knowledge of cereal-crop improvement and dedicated investigations are likely (at modest cost) to make large advances and improvements. Yields can almost certainly be raised