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Profit-making idea: Producing the supergrain fonio in Mali

In a world increasingly interested in the next superfood, entrepreneurial farmers and agro-processors can cash in on the opportunities that exist on the African continent for crops that meet the health and wellness bill.

According to Simballa Sylla, chief executive officer of Mali-based shea agro-processing company Mali Shi, the West African country has significant agribusiness potential, with ample water and even more arable land.

Sylla says the fact that Mali is a landlocked country pose a challenge to some industries that need to import raw materials for manufacturing or for operations. “One can, however, grow crops locally and manufacture the relevant agribusiness product from that,” he explains.

One crop that Sylla believes holds promise, is fonio, one of the oldest cultivated cereals in Africa. It is gluten-free, rich in vitamins and amino acids and high in protein.

Fonio production in Mali has grown exponentially since 2017. A USAID study found that production of this crop expanded by 176% between 2017 and 2018. This significantly outstrips the 5.3% annualised growth rate of total cereal production (of which fonio forms part) for the period 2012 to 2018. However, fonio still only accounts for about 1% of the total crop volume of all cereals cultivated in Mali.

One of the barriers to entry for success in the production and processing of a relatively unknown food is the regulatory approvals required in export markets. For fonio, this barrier has been overcome as novel food approval was granted in the EU and it is already sold in Northern America as well. Progress in market acceptance in the US, specifically, is thanks to the work done by Senegal-raised chef, author and social entrepreneur Pierre Thiam (who lives in New York). Thiam’s recipes and appearances on platforms such as TED have cast the spotlight on the grain. He is also the founder of Yolélé Foods, which sells fonio in the US market.

The USAID study states that, given fonio’s increasing popularity abroad, it has the potential to become a niche export product like mango for Mali. “Nevertheless, Mali faces the competition from other fonio producers like GuineaBurkina Faso and Senegal,” the report reads. Exports from the country are irregular as processors often lack long-term contracts with international buyers. “Promoting exports would require increasing the efficiency of the supply chain, improving the quality of the product and the implementation of the food safety standards required to export,” according to the study.

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