Fonio as Fast Food
As noted elsewhere (especially in Appendix C), a lack of processed products is holding back Africa's native grains. One grass-roots organization is doing something about this: it is turning fonio into a convenience food.
In southern Mali, fonio is mainly grown by women on their individual plots. Perhaps not unexpectedly, then, it is a women's group that has chosen to foster the grain's greater use. The group aims to raise fonio consumption by producing a precooked flour.
The project, backed by the Malian Association for the Promotion of the Young (AMPJ), is staffed and run entirely by women. Their goal is a fast-cooking fonio that will challenge parboiled rice and pre-packaged pasta (both of which are usually imported) in the Bamako markets.
The new "instant" fonio comes in 1-kg plastic bags and is ready for use. It requires no pounding or cleaning. It can be used to prepare all of the traditional fonio dishes. It is simple to store and handle. It is clean and free of hulls and dirt. And it requires less than 15 minutes to cook. For the user, then, it offers an enormous saving in both effort and time.
The project is currently a small one, designed to handle 6 tons of raw fonio per year. It uses local materials, traditional techniques, and household equipment: mortars, tubs, calabashes, steaming pots, sieves, matting, kitchen scales, and small utensils. The women sieve, crush, wash, and steam-cook the fonio; then they dry and seal the product in the airtight bags. The most delicate operation is a series of three washes to separate sand from the fine fonio grains.
The women have organized themselves into small working groups, formed for (1) the supply of raw materials, (2) production and packaging, and (3) marketing.
Fonio is considered a prestige food in local culinary customs. Yet, on the Bamako market this precooked product currently sells at a very competitive price: between 500 and 550 CFA Francs per kg. (By comparison, couscous sells at 650-750 CFA Francs.)
This small and homespun operation exemplifies what could and should be done with native grains throughout Africa. It is good for everyone: diversifying the diet of city folks, reducing food imports, and, above all, benefitting the local farmers by giving them a value-added product.