Fonio, the nutritious West African cereal that was the focus of Senegalese Laureate Sanoussi Diakité’s 1996 Rolex Award project, is likely to gain a major boost in the next few years.
The fonio-husking machine, which Diakité, an engineer and teacher, invented in the early 1990s, has transformed the once-laborious process of preparing the cereal into a simple task.
The 50-kilo machine costs between €1,200 and €2,000 to purchase, depending on the type of machine and whether it has an electric motor or gas engine. This price makes it too expensive for individual households to buy. But over the last decade, governments across West Africa have begun to pay attention to Diakité’s revolutionary device. When governments buy the machine they generally try to make it accessible to as many people as possible.
“We’ve now manufactured and sold over 100 machines,” says Diakité, who developed the husking device in his spare time as a teacher at the Lycée technique industriel Maurice Delafosse, in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
“Recently, the World Bank, through its West Africa Agricultural Productivity Program Project, funded the distribution and assessment of six fonio-husking machines in Senegal.” The results of the assessment were positive, he adds – and the same World Bank programme will now support the manufacture of 200 of his machines for use in Senegal.
“Fonio is tasty, light, easy to digest and can be served with meat or poultry or vegetables,” says Diakité, who could be considered as the world’s principal champion of the cereal, which is eaten in a huge swathe of Africa, from Lake Chad – on the border between Chad and Nigeria – to Cape Verde, on the continent’s Atlantic coast. Furthermore, Diakité points out, a respected researcher, Dr Djibril Traoré, has recently proved some of the health benefits of fonio.
Traoré made the cereal the focus of research for his doctorate at Oklahoma State University, in the U.S. “This was the first time that scientific research at this level has been applied to fonio,” he says. “Previously, many people said fonio was good for you, but there was no proof.”
Professor Traoré, who is a scientific and technical counsellor at Senegal’s Institut de technologie alimentaire (Institute of Food Technology), carried out a series of experiments on mice, some of which had Type 2 diabetes. A sample group of the diabetes mice was fed fonio. “The most important result of the tests was that those fed with fonio were almost cured. [After the experiment] three out of 10 of the mice had completely normal livers. This is strong proof of the value of fonio.” Dr Traoré adds that eating fonio also helps prevent obesity, which is a step on the way to diabetes.
Traoré describes Diakité’s machine as “excellent. Instead of three days needed to process fonio, it now takes a couple of hours”.
Senegal’s minister for industry will make a presentation, based on Traoré’s research, to the national parliament, in a bid to promote further cultivation of the grain, Traoré says.
Diakité adds that Fonio Day is also promoting awareness of fonio. Originally proposed by Diakité himself several years ago, Fonio Day had its third annual celebration in July this year. The customary date – 27 July (the date on which Diakité’s first machine was manufactured in 1993 was changed in some areas so as not to conflict with Ramadan.
One of the most significant Fonio Day events was held in the town of Natitingou in Benin. The 128 representatives of non-governmental, municipal, agricultural and business organizations present discussed ways to promote fonio and solve production problems.
“Fonio Day is proposed now on the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] calendar,” Diakité says, stressing that, with food security widely predicted to be a major risk in the decades ahead, fonio is an ideal crop for West Africa – this hardy cereal can withstand drought and floods, grows in poor soil and needs no fertilizer and very little water.
Diakité was recently appointed by the Senegalese government as director general of the National Office for Professional Training.
“The government has asked me to organize professional training for workers and I will be in my element, strengthening professional skills for Senegal,” Diakité says. “I now have one foot in professional formation, one in research and one in food agriculture. It’s possible my new job has come about partly because of fonio – I’m well known here, thanks to the machine.”Learn more about Sanoussi Diakité