With a history that goes back 5000 years, fonio is one of Africa’s oldest grains. This not-so-well-known grain is packed with nutrients, goes with any cuisine, is climate-friendly, and is about to take the world by storm. Here, we’re going to dive deep into why we think you need fonio in your diet and a Dubai-based food service that aims to help you do just that.
A Nutritional Powerhouse
Coming from the millet family, with a variety of brown or white, fonio is one of the smallest ever grains and is considered a whole grain. This is important as whole grains like fonio have all three components of the kernel – bran, endosperm, germ – as opposed to refined grains, which have had the germ and bran removed during processing. The Whole Grains Council, a non-profit consumer advocacy organisation, estimates that when the bran and germ are removed from a grain, about 25% of the protein is lost. Fonio, on the other hand, has plenty of protein.
This nutritious food also has low carbs, a low glycaemic index (a scale that gives an estimation of the impact of carbohydrates on blood sugar), and is gluten-free. Plus, it contains a range of amino acids, particularly cysteine and methionine, with the former being important for body tissue growth and repair, hair growth, nail health, and skin elasticity. The latter, meanwhile, helps with detoxification and protein synthesis. The amount of amino acids also makes it perfect for those who follow plant-based diets.
A Friend for All Diabetic Folks
For diabetics, the low GI and low sugar content of fonio can help to lessen fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin levels. The is common knowledge in West Africa, and doctors in Nigeria are often said to advise fonio to diabetic patients. Another reason that fonio is a good option for diabetics, according to the Collaborative Crop Research Programme (CCRP), is that it contains more insulin-secreting amino acids (valine, leucine, isoleucine) than other cereals like rice, maize, or millet.
Cooking Made Easy!
Fonio is perfect for our modern-day lifestyles as it cooks in less than five minutes. It is super-versatile and can be used in both sweet and savoury recipes. It’s a wonderful blank canvas that takes on the flavour of how it’s prepared, making it perfect for jollof, the iconic one-pot rice dish from West Africa. It can also be eaten warm or cold, simply cooked and added to a salad, or as a healthy porridge to start your day. Plus, its nutty flavour satisfies hunger for longer, substituting many starchy foods.
There’s Just One Problem
While fonio may sound like the perfect grain so far, unfortunately, very few people outside West Africa actually know about it. And in truth, very few people in West Africa even eat fonio. Veghana (Dubai’s locally grown meal delivery and catering service and one of only a handful of vegan African food brands that exist anywhere in the world) is determined to change this and bring the glory of fonio and West African food to the Middle East and beyond. Being both plant-based and African, Veghana is in an awkward position – a niche within a niche – which is often not a great recipe for business success, but chef and founder Nana-Serwa Mancell is a woman on a mission.
“I’m a recent convert to veganism and I’m finding it super-easy because I’m eating mostly plant-based West African food. Without this, I would be bored by endless quinoa and pumpkin – often the only option on restaurant menus,” she says.
Nana re-interprets the Ghanaian food she grew up eating for Veghana’s menu, which features fonio as a healthier alternative to yam or rice. She also firmly believes that Veghana is not just for vegans. Anyone who loves tasty comfort food will love it, according to her – even committed carnivores! But the benefits and joys of vegan African food and fonio are multifold, impacting more than just the diner.
For a Sustainable Future
The fonio crop reaches harvest within only six to eight weeks of planting and, once harvested, the roots are left and continue to nourish the soil. Fonio, which hails from the borders of the Sahara desert, is also exceptionally climate-friendly. Even in the driest and sandiest soil beds, its extensive root systems are able to find water deep underground. Frequently referred to as “the new quinoa”, fonio can also flourish in harsh conditions of drought or floods – both regular occurrences in the fonio-growing region. Compared to other grains, it also does not need much water, pesticides, or fertiliser to grow – thereby earning it the title of “lazy farmer’s crop”.
But how did the region go from traditional foods like fonio to more imported varieties? Large tracts of land were taken over during colonialism for plantations that produced cash crops for export like sugar, tea, and cocoa, while the ‘green revolution’ of the 20th century promoted the idea of growing high-yield grains to fight world hunger.
Although the plantations continued to expand, they did not increase biodiversity. Such popular imports needed the ecosystem to be modified to ensure the proper growing conditions, which involved clearing vast tracts of diverse land that were initially covered by traditional African farming systems that allowed the growing of multiple crops in close proximity that are better suited to survive.
Now, experts believe that agrobiodiversity (or lack of diversity in agriculture) is a serious threat to food security, can make us more sensitive to the effects of climate change, and decrease the diversity of plants and animals. Knorr and WWF-UK have created a list of 50 nutrient-dense plant-based ingredients that people should eat to improve one’s health and lessen the negative effects of food production on the environment. And featuring in the Future 50 Foods report is, of course, fonio.
Empowering Women Farmers
Amaati is a social enterprise that pioneered the revival of fonio in Northern Ghana. Amaati generates income for 8,000 farmers through fonio farming. These farmers are mostly landless women living in some of the most impoverished regions in the world, and the increasing demand for fonio has the potential to change their lives for the better.
The majority of women in the area make their living by working on men’s farms. Due to culture and tradition, these women have no access to fertile lands. The only available lands are degraded lands that can’t support the cultivation of food crops, jeopardising the security of the food supply. Fonio’s hardiness makes it perfect to grow on such land, and Amaati helps women grow it by providing them with various agricultural support services, thus securing a livelihood for them. Nana, the founder of Veghana, initially heard about fonio from the new generation of African diaspora chefs, who independently promote fonio much as she does now.
She then hurried back to Ghana to find out more, which is where she learned about Amaati. “My initial aim with Veghana was to spread a love of West African food and make it the next trendy global cuisine. I have now moved on from this,” explains Nana. “I still want those things, but I also want Veghana to regenerate our land. At our core must be a mission to use plants like fonio to reinvent and regenerate West African farming, dish by delicious dish.”
To taste fonio, order from Veghana. If you would like a free sample of fonio, you can collect one from Veghana’s kitchen in Downtown Dubai by sending a WhatsApp message to 050 956 9277. And for the recipe to Veghana’s Fonio Jollof, visit this post on Veghana’s Instagram account.