Sanoussi Diakité

More fonio, less labour

April 26, 2010

Sanoussi Diakité’s fonio-husking machine, invented in the 1990s, is increasingly helping prevent a delicious, West African cereal from disappearing.

Thirteen years after he was chosen as a Laureate, Diakité reports that his invention is meeting with greater and greater success. Today 50 machines are in operation in eight countries. In December 2009, six new units were manufactured one at a time, and there is potential for large-scale production in the future. The new units will be shipped to Guinea, where half of the world’s annual supply of hand-pounded fonio – 120,000 tonnes – is produced. Diakité will also travel to Guinea, to help set up a fonio processing plant.

©RolexAwards/Fatoumata Diabate

When he can spare the time from his teaching job in Dakar, the 50-year-old Senegalese engineer travels from country to country, promoting the cultivation of fonio in local communities and among government authorities and businesspeople. He has also bought two hectares of land in Kolda where he has set up not only his husking machines, but also a unit to pre-cook fonio. Sustained production, for both the domestic market and for export, should begin soon.

“Fonio is a very tasty cereal; anyone who tries it always asks for more,” Diakité says. “Studies have shown that it has great nutritional value.” Fonio has a low fat content and a high percentage of methionine, an essential amino acid, making it a particularly appropriate foodstuff for children and pregnant women. The cereal is also rich in fibre and very nourishing. Steamed or boiled, one kilo of grain is enough to feed 10 people.

Digitaria exilis, as fonio is known in Latin, is a hardy cereal that can withstand drought and floods, grows in poor soil, and needs no fertilizer and very little water. The seeds are scattered by hand and the plant grows like grass, so quickly that two or three crops can be harvested annually. “This abundance is due to the fact that fonio, unlike other cereals imported from the Americas, Mesopotamia or India, is native to the Sahel,” Diakité points out. “It has been grown from Cape Verde to Chad at least since the 16th century.”

Unfortunately, fonio’s biggest drawback is what makes it so precious: its tiny size. One seed measures barely one millimetre across (one gram of fonio contains over 2,000 seeds). And it is fragile. It can be crushed with the thumb, making it difficult to remove the brittle two layers of husk from the seeds. Traditionally, this was done by pounding fonio mixed with sand. The women then winnowed the mixture and started all over again. Four times. The result: 2.5 kilos of edible cereal for two hours of work.

With the advent of farm machines for other cereals – but not suited to fonio – the women, hoping to lighten the domestic load, turned their backs on the small African cereal, which went into what appeared to be an inexorable decline. What they did not envisage was the inventiveness of Sanoussi Diakité, who had graduated from Dakar’s Ecole nationale d’études techniques et professionnelles supérieures and was determined to save his favourite food.

©RolexAwards/Fatoumata Diabate Sanoussi Diakité installs and demonstrates his machine in Hamdani, a village in Southern Senegal, in December 2009.

The machine that won him a Rolex Award is a 50-kilo device whose rotating flexible plates – the invention’s secret – gently rub the surface of the grain, which is transported from the hopper – a kind of large funnel – to the winnowing compartment. The device produces two kilos of fonio in six minutes, without crushing the seeds.

“For the local women to accept my machine, it has to be fast and, above all, husk the fonio efficiently, meaning that there must be as few unhusked seeds as possible in the output,” Diakité explains. “That condition has been met, because my machine has a husking rate of 99 per cent. In addition, because the process is mechanized, the fonio contains no impurities or sand.”

Little by little, the machine’s performance has been enhanced. The latest models husk five kilos of seeds in six minutes, or 50 kilos an hour. But the price of the machine remains unchanged: 1,200 Euros with an electric motor, or 1,750 Euros with a gas engine. “I don’t work for profit,” he explains. “I’m not an industrialist who’s in it for the money. My main goal is to promote the cultivation of fonio.”

In the past few years, the cultivation of fonio has been revitalized in many places, a development in which Sanoussi Diakité has had a hand. Several industrialists are interested in the machine, but difficulty in obtaining spare parts remains a major obstacle for the time being. This has not stopped the annual production of pre-cooked fonio at Ucodal, a Malian processing plant, from rising to 100 tonnes a year from 12 tonnes in 1995. Another company, La Vivrière in Dakar, is awaiting more regular supplies of the cereal before launching its own production.

©RolexAwards/Fatoumata Diabate A woman in Hamdani feels the difference between fonio grains and the flour produced by Diakité’s machine.

A group of women in Kedougou, in southern Senegal, also bought a machine and recently started their own production (between 50 and 100 tonnes per year). They are so successful that demand far outstrips supply.

Today, several countries have introduced programmes to restore fonio cultivation. In Benin, which has several of Diakité’s machines, the government has decided that the cereal is a credible alternative during food crises like the one that hit the country two years ago. The aim is to produce 12,000 tonnes of fonio over the next three years.

In Senegal, fonio has been included in a plan aimed at meeting the country’s food needs. Diakité welcomes this development and has offered to make his husking machines available free of charge.

In the future, however, the machines will have to be mass produced. And therein lies the rub. All attempts to set up a factory have failed. But Sanoussi Diakité is undaunted. The land he bought near Kolda and on which he has built two sheds may well house such a production unit.

“I’m looking for an investor who is interested in the project,” he explains. “Someone who wants to launch a partnership with me and get involved in industrial management. For my part, I intend to pursue my efforts to mobilize society to cultivate fonio.”

Anton Vos

Learn more about Sanoussi Diakité

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