At the beginning of the year, Terra Ingredients was ready to shake up the grain world by making fonio easily accessible to consumers.
Global shutdowns, transportation headaches, massive demand for other food products and red tape put a damper on the launch.
"It is not all bad, so that's the encouraging part," Malick Diedhiou, manager of Terra's fonio project told Food Dive. "... Some aspects of this project have slowed down. Others have picked up or have progressed in a really encouraging way."
Fonio, a grain native to the Sahel region of Africa — a belt in the northern part of the continent south of the Sahara and north of the savannah that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea — has never had wide commercial distribution, even in Africa. It grows in remote places and is notoriously difficult to process. But it has a good nutritional profile, providing fiber, protein, amino acids, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium. It also has a distinct nutty flavor and makes a good gluten-free flour.
Terra Ingredients had worked to develop a processing plant in Dakar, Senegal that could more easily do the tedious work of processing the grain. But while the plant was almost ready to start operations at the beginning of the year, the coronavirus spread in Senegal. Lockdown orders kept the final bit of work from being done at the plant, Diedhiou said. The custom-made and highly specialized processing machinery had not been completely calibrated just yet. Final parts needed to be brought to the plant, some from other countries. Land borders in Africa were closed to minimize the virus' spread, and they were extremely difficult to cross, Diedhiou said.
Out of an abundance of caution, the company decided to pause all of the work to get the plant up and running, he said.
As in many countries, food industry workers in Senegal have been able to continue operating during the pandemic. While the factory was not yet operational, Terra Ingredients, which is a global leader in ingredients made from organic and non-GMO grains, pulses and other plants, has several operational redundancies built into the way it does business. Before the company started talking up fonio, it had some processes in order to start a supply. Terra's fonio warehouse is near the Port of Dakar, and container shipping has been flowing freely, Diedhiou said.
"In that sense there was never a real risk of disruption in supply because we have inventory in Dakar and container vessels are sailing. It alleviated a lot of stress just knowing that we have inventory and we are able to ship that at any time."
Also, being at the very beginning of selling and promoting fonio has helped Terra get through the pandemic period. There isn't much demand right now because fonio is brand new on the market.
However, the pandemic is changing how the further launch of fonio will unfold. Diedhiou said it is important to make sure it's done in a cautious way — both in terms of ensuring public health in Senegal as well as making sure there is demand in the United States and other markets. The pandemic has caused many manufacturers to pause innovation and launches, prioritizing factories and shelf space for the most popular products.
In the United States, Terra's plant where fonio gets pasteurized has been running at capacity — mostly due to increased demand of all other kinds of food, Diedhiou said.
"Some aspects of this project have slowed down, others have picked up, or have progressed in a really encouraging way."
Fonio project manager, Terra Ingredients
But that increasing demand for other ingredients led some manufacturers to actually develop and launch fonio products ahead of schedule, Diedhiou said. Several manufacturers were in the R&D phase with fonio products, and Diedhiou said two decided to take the plunge and get new products out to market.
"They basically used the increased demand, and just the demand for shelves in the supermarkets to be filled up to just say, 'Hey, we've been working on the R&D process for a while,' " Diedhiou said. "They felt comfortable taking a ... leap of faith and taking the chance."
Iya Foods, which makes flours, powders and seasonings from gluten-free African ingredients, has launched its fonio flour product. Diedhiou said Iya Foods is looking at additional fonio product launches in coming months. Flax seed cracker maker Flackers is also soon launching a fonio-flax cracker, and is in the final stages of developing it, he said. Diedhiou said Flackers was also encouraged by the positive feedback it received for the new cracker.
"While, obviously, there are a lot of things ... of the plan that we had to put on hold, [it's nice] to see that some things have launched. And to see real progress, and that this market, the fonio market, is slowly picking up steam and definitely continuing to grow," Diedhiou said.
R&D for new fonio products is ongoing, both at small niche manufacturers and large multinational companies, Diedhiou said. Once commerce goes back to normal, he is hopeful that these products will be quickly getting to shelves — and with them raising the profile for fonio.