From the Pyramids to the Platter: A forgotten grain captures the attention of Whole Foods Market
- November 1, 2017: Vol. 4, Number 11

From the Pyramids to the Platter: A forgotten grain captures the attention of Whole Foods Market

by Pierre Thiam

There is an ancient grain called fonio that had all but disappeared from the diet of Africans. It turns out that fonio had been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and is probably the oldest cultivated cereal in Africa. Once a popular grain on much of the continent, fonio was grown in ancient Egypt, where archaeologists found grains inside pyramids’ burial grounds.

Fonio is a miracle grain in many aspects. It is nutritious, particularly rich in methionine and cysteine, two amino acids that are deficient in most other major grains. In addition, fonio tolerates poor soil and needs very little water, surviving where other crops will not grow.

Similar to couscous, fonio has a delicious, nutty and earthy flavor. It can be turned into salad, served as noodles, used in baking or simply as a substitute for any other grains in recipes.

Ancient grains are getting more popular, and sales of gluten-free items are growing in the United States — 16.4 percent since 2013, making it a $23.3 billion industry.

How could fonio partake in this market share? There are many challenges in turning fonio into food. Traditional processing is laborious and time-consuming, especially when compared to other grains. Thankfully, technology has evolved and there are now machines that can process fonio in a more efficient way. A few years ago, an African engineer won a Rolex prize for his invention of the first mechanized fonio processor. Today, such machines are making life much easier for producers.

How can fonio be elevated into a world-class crop? Last year, a business partner and I secured a commitment from Whole Foods Market, the largest natural food store chain in the United States, to carry fonio. Also, a large American ingredient importer became interested enough to send a team of executives to West Africa to explore the supply chain’s viability.

We drew up a vision with a beneficial and commercially sustainable supply chain for fonio, and we connected ourselves with organizations that can help us achieve it. Imagine fonio being consumed across the globe like popular grains. To get there, fonio needs to be readily available at a consistent quality for commercial users, such as food manufacturers and restaurant chains. That is the missing element. To make fonio available at a consistent quality for commercial use, a commercial-scale fonio mill is needed that adheres to international quality standards. Currently, there is no such mill, making it difficult for producers to prepare and sell fonio without devoting a huge amount of time and energy to threshing, winnowing and husking the crop.

We envision an African-owned and operated fonio mill that processes efficiently and in compliance with the requirements of multinational food companies. The mill will allow producers to focus on farming rather than processing.


Pierre Thiam is a chef and shares the cuisine of his home in Senegal through global restaurants and his cookbooks. This article was excerpted from his TED Talk on the subject, which can be viewed at this link:

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