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Niche value chains: Profiting from neglected crops


Field report: West Africa

Private sector investment in the cultivation of fonio, a type of millet grown in the semi-arid zones of West Africa, has opened an export route between Africa’s fonio-producing regions – including Guinea, Mali and Senegal – and the US.

Yolélé Foods, a New York-based food processing company, aims to capitalise on the popularity of nutritionally-rich grains in western markets, by providing support to West African farmers for the production, processing and marketing of fonio. The private company is in the early stages of developing a fonio export market, with input from a number of other private and non-private actors, and is investing across all stages of the value chain. “Our whole premise is that the needs of a lucrative export market drive investment in financially sustainable value chain improvement,” explains Philip Teverow, who co-founded Yolélé Foods in collaboration with Senegalese chef, Pierre Thiam.

Fonio’s deep roots, high tolerance to drought and rapid growth rate – maturing in 6-8 weeks – mean that it is a reliable crop for semi-arid zones with poor soils, and infrequent rainfall. This is critical in parts of the Sahel that have been hit hard by climate change; “Even if the rains don’t come, if you grow fonio, you’ll still have a harvest,” says fonio farmer, Manga Coulibali.

Despite this, fonio remains a neglected crop (see Spore article, Promoting Neglected Crops to Diversify Diets), rejected in favour of more common crops such as maize and rice. Its neglect is, in large part, due to its small size relative to other grains, and its tough hull – both of which make traditional processing practices particularly labour-intensive. “Processing can be difficult,” says Senegalese farmer, Bakari Traore, adding, “We used to grow more fonio, but stopped because it was too much work.”

Market demand from the US, however, has brought about a surge of interest in neglected grains. Fonio’s nutritional value, in particular, has been a major driver for the establishment of a private sector-led export chain: the grain has a considerably higher protein and fibre content than couscous and brown rice, for example, and is rich in methionine and cysteine (amino acids central to the growth and repair of muscle tissue), which are generally lacking in other West African staple grains. Yolélé Foods seeks to profit from rising demand for this grain in US markets; but it is hoped that knock-on effects will also benefit the producing regions of West Africa, where fonio has the potential to boost both nutrition and food security.

Public-private partnership

Discussing the company’s goals, Teverow states that their intent “is to reduce the cost of inputs through agronomic improvements and the use of equipment, while also increasing yields.” To achieve this, Yolélé Foods has established a partnership with SOS Sahel, an NGO with over 40 years of experience, and 500 people on the ground in rural Africa. Through the partnership, SOS Sahel’s extension workers will provide smallholder cooperatives with training in best practices, simple equipment to accelerate more labour-intensive farm activities (e.g. sowing, weeding and threshing), financial backing, and storage. The partnership aims to establish a network of 7,000 fonio-producing farms in eastern Senegal by 2019, serviced by seven community centres that rent out and maintain equipment. SOS Sahel also helps Yolélé Foods to measure its social impact by independently monitoring productivity, employment and per person income in the affiliated fonio-producing communities.

Value chain development

Yolélé Foods has also formed a coalition with African partners, including a number of large grain processors and investment funds, to establish a commercial-scale fonio mill in Senegal. “Our mill will be climate-resilient and carbon-neutral,” says Teverow, and should relieve producers of the need to manually hull, clean and dry fonio. Investment will also create employment within the processing sector, and spur the growth of supplementary businesses in agricultural services and transportation. Fonio farmers are open to the benefits such value chain investment: “If we had one of those [fonio de-hulling] machines, we’d grow a lot more fonio,” says Senegalese farmer, Sasimiti Samoura. “We’d sell some for money, and we’d have some to eat.”

Yolélé Foods believe that increased and more efficient fonio production will reduce the grain’s cost, helping to grow domestic consumption and reduce the region’s reliance on imported rice – with the added bonus of improving local diets. At present, 100% of fonio produced in Africa for Yolélé Foods is exported to the US; but with an efficient mill driving down domestic fonio prices, Teverow asserts that the company eventually “expects the mill to distribute 20-40% of its output domestically.” The practicalities of improving African nutrition through multi-stakeholder partnerships, therefore, remain work in progress. But farmers themselves are optimistic about the potential for such enterprises to improve rural lives: “Fonio has a good price, especially if you have a lot,” Samoura explains. “If we had money from fonio,” his mother adds, “we’d save it to build a new hut with cement and a corrugated roof.”