A gluten-free grain that grows in Africa’s impoverished and semi-arid Sahel region is taking off as a health food in New York, the Senegalese chef who masterminded its revival said on Monday, outlining plans to almost double production by 2023.
Pierre Thiam last year began exporting fonio to New York, hoping to help smallholder communities in the Sahel, which stretches from Mauritania and Mali in the west to Sudan and Eritrea in the east, and is home to more than 100 million people.
The grain is on the menus of more than 60 New York restaurants and is soon to be in all of the city’s Whole Foods stores, said an executive at Yolele Foods, the company that Thiam cofounded.
“It’s a grain that could play an important role in some of the poorest regions in the world. The Sahel, nothing grows in that region, but fonio grows abundantly,” Thiam said at the international Slow Food Festival in Turin, Italy.
“It’s also great for the environment. It matures in 60 days and grows with very little water. There’s even a nickname they have for fonio — the lazy farmers’ crop,” he said.
Thiam said that he hoped to expand annual production from 600,000 tonnes to 1 million tonnes over the next five years.
He wants to have 7,000 families in Senegal producing the crop by 2020, and also plans to expand production to Burkina Faso.
Yolele Foods describes fonio as a “gluten-free, nutrient rich, ancient grain that takes just 5 minutes to cook.”
The company’s Web site includes recipes for everything from fonio breakfast cereal to kimchi with fonio.
“When we rolled out at Whole Foods Harlem, they built a display for us within the first couple of weeks, because we were selling out so quickly,” Yolele director of business development Claire Alsup said.
Thiam, who opened his first restaurant in New York in 1997, said that changing weather patterns had hit the crops commonly grown in the Sahel, but that fonio grew quickly even in poor soil and under dry conditions.
The crop was largely abandoned under French rule when local farmers were made to grow peanuts and grains such as wheat were imported, but it is being rediscovered, he said.
Thiam said he was aware that popular demand for traditional grains such as fonio and millet could push up prices, putting them out of the reach of local consumers.
“We’re conscious of that. We definitely want the first beneficiaries to be the smallholder communities of West Africa,” he said.
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