It can take days of traveling through rough terrain and hours of laborious processing by hand to get a plate of fonio, a relatively unknown grain native to Africa that tastes great, has impressive nutritional credentials, works well in a variety of applications and is extremely sustainable.
But in 2020, Terra Ingredients plans to bring this grain to the rest of the world. With a new state-of-the-art processing plant about to open in Senegal in West Africa and a pasteurization and quality control plant for it in North Dakota, annual exports of fonio could be in the thousands of tons, Terra Ingredients Director Peter Carlson told Food Dive.
Terra is a leader in ingredients made from organic and non-GMO grains, pulses and other plants. It has state-of-the art processing facilities in the United States, and a presence on six continents. Carlson said once he learned about fonio, the decision to bring the grain to other parts of the world was easy.
"It became very obvious that nobody could do it like we can," he said. "...We couldn't not get in the fonio market."
Fonio has never been formally cultivated. Carlson said the crop hasn't even been bred to propagate desirable characteristics, such as plants with stronger stalks that don't droop when the grain is ripe.
It's grown in 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. And while the region does include some large cities, Carlson said fonio is extremely difficult to come by in places like coastal Dakar, Senegal because of the remote places where it is grown.
"It became very obvious that nobody could do it like we can. ... We couldn't not get in the fonio market."
Director, Terra Ingredients
The grain is nutritious and tasty, with a slightly nutty flavor. Carlson said it makes an excellent gluten-free flour and can be used in many baking applications. It also be eaten on its own like couscous or quinoa.
"I think I keep going back to the taste because that's what we hear from so many people, about how exciting the actual taste is," Carlson said. "In some ways, the non-gluten market — it's not a niche market, of course, it's huge — but a lot of those things are compromise products, if you will. Fonio is not a compromise product. ... It works well for the gluten-free diet, but it's also for people who are eating gluten as well. It fits for that taste."
Fonio also is a good source of fiber, protein, amino acids, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium. Carlson said that people who live in the villages where fonio is grown make a point to eat the grain when they are sick.
In addition, the grain is a sustainable crop. It does well without fertilizer and pesticides. And, given its native area, can grow well without much water.
Fonio checks all of the boxes for what today's consumers want in food. It's exotic, tasty, gluten free and nutritious. But it's also notoriously difficult to process and export, which is why more consumers haven't heard of it. Currently, only a few small companies export fonio to be sold abroad. And the grain they sell is quite pricey. Yolélé Foods, the company most closely associated with fonio now, sells three 10-ounce bags of the grain on Amazon for $19.95.
Terra Ingredients will be able to change fonio's relative obscurity and high price point, Carlson said. The company is in the unique position to have the expertise to process the grain to meet demand worldwide, he told Food Dive.
The company spent 12 months on what he said was an "R&D nightmare" as it worked to create a mechanized way to process fonio. The grain is so small that it tends to pick up bits of sand when the hull is removed — and the grain isn't much bigger than sand itself. Getting rid of that sand and keeping the grain is one of the biggest challenges, Carlson said.
Terra Ingredients eventually built a plant in Dakar, Senegal to remove the grain's hulls and separate out the sand. After being initially processed at this plant, the grain will be shipped to a Terra Ingredients plant in North Dakota for metal detection and final pasteurization — the same certified quality control processes the company's other ingredients already undergo.
The Africa processing plant isn't yet up and running, though Malick Diedhiou, a Terra commodity trader who works with fonio, told Food Dive in an email it is expected to begin operating this month.
"Everybody we talk to wants to learn more about it and wants to start some R&D. ... Right now, there's probably like 10 companies that are excited to launch a product with it as soon as they create their formulations."
Director, Terra Ingredients
Once Terra exports its first fonio, there are many CPG companies who are waiting to get their hands on it, Carlson said. Reaction among manufacturers to the impending availability of large quantities of high-quality fonio has been extremely enthusiastic.
"Everybody we talk to wants to learn more about it and wants to start some R&D," he said. "... Right now, there's probably like 10 companies that are excited to launch a product with it as soon as they create their formulations."
But the exotic grain some hail as the "next quinoa" has one other aspect going for it. Because it is cultivated in extremely remote communities, commercialization of the ingredient has a large and direct impact on those who grow it. Carlson said Terra Ingredients is working with three villages to source its fonio. Although the company has only worked with a relatively small quantity so far, when production is scaled up, these communities will reap the benefits.
Terra Ingredients also been working with a women's co-op to process some fonio by hand. To fill a single container, about 90 women worked full-time for two weeks. And while the fonio soon will not be processed by hand, Carlson said these women will stay on as vital parts of the company. They will be working with growers, maintaining quality control, and doing some of the processing work.
Carlson said the company is looking forward to bringing fonio to the world.
"Our thing is, frankly, our win-win-win on local farmers' communities, to the environment and sustainability elements, and then thirdly, the ... health conscious consumers here," he said. "It has us very excited."