US consumer’s best friend
Fonio is, Thiam goes on, the health-conscious American consumer’s best friend because it is low in calories, high in protein, and free of gluten, which can cause food allergies.
The grain is also, he points out, an African farmer’s best friend, too. A hardy and inexpensive crop, fonio is drought resistant and matures quickly, in just six to eight weeks. This allows a farmer to make the most of his investment and have several plantings of fonio in one season.
“It is going to help populations back home in Africa and help the Americans, as well,” claims Thiam.
But there are concerns, though, that if fonio does one day become as popular as quinoa, that it might, as quinoa has, become too expensive for people at home to eat.
I asked the Senegal-born New York restaurant owner Papa Diagne, who uses fonio in many of his recipes, if he was concerned there would not be enough fonio to go around one day.
“Come on, we are not going to have a good thing like this and keep it to ourselves,” he laughs sitting at a table in his New York restaurant Wolof. “Fonio can be the next big thing, I think so.”
Chef Pierre Thiam certainly thinks so. Helping him introduce Americans to fonio is American Jim Thaller, managing director of the Talier Trading Group, a speciality food development company that gets what’s called ‘ethnic’ produce into US grocery stores and on US supermarket shelves.
The company was the first to get African products, like Senegalese company Zena Fruits’ Baobab Jelly and Kenyan company Shamba Farms’ all-natural green beans, carrots and yellow beans, into US supermarkets.
To date, Jim Thaller’s firm, which is based in the New York City area, has got more than 400 African products into US supermarkets, which have generated more than $5m in sales. This is an impressive record as only a tiny percentage of new products are accepted onto supermarket shelves.
So what will it take to convince a US supermarket to purchase fonio? First, Thaller says, fonio’s long history and tradition must be used to convince and compel supermarket buyers. Second, the product’s packaging must captivate. “We buy with our eyes first and that triggers purchase,” Thaller says. Third, fonio must be easy for a supermarket’s customers to use and must satisfy a wide array of tastes, he says.
For fonio to win broad acceptance abroad will, Jim Thaller says, take more than Pierre Thiam. It will take the involvement of donor organisations like FAO and of African governments and others to lobby for fonio the way international bodies have lobbied for quinoa.
“There is a consumer education piece that does not fall on Chef Pierre,” says Thaller. “We need the government of Senegal, the fonio cooperatives, the World Bank, to really get behind fonio and do for it what has been done for quinoa. This is critical.”
High-level backing needed
Jim Thaller is right. Quinoa’s rise has not been without the backing of several governments and international agencies. Bolivia and Peru, the chief growers and exporters of quinoa, convinced the UN to declare 2013 the International Year of the Quinoa, gaining official sanction and gaining the South American grain, too, the kind of worldwide exposure that’s helped it increase exports ten-fold in the past decade.
Pierre Thiam would like the UN to make 2015 the International Year of Fonio. He would also like to see fonio win Fair Trade status and certification so that green consumers can quickly identify it, and support it, knowing that it meets agreed environmental, labour, and developmental standards.
“There is a serious need for our products to be recognised, to find new markets and everybody benefits,” Thiam says. “The Africans benefit from it by gaining true independence and the Europeans and Americans benefit by having access to this healthy grain.”
If all goes well, Pierre Thiam says he expects to have his first shipment of fonio on US supermarket shelves by the end of the year or very early next year. He is in talks with buyers for the US supermarket chain Whole Foods, a high-end store which specialises in organic produce from around the world.
Confident that Whole Foods, which was one of the first of the American supermarkets to begin selling African speciality foodstuffs, will give him the go-ahead and say yes to fonio, Thiam has employed a women’s farming cooperative in Southeast Senegal to grow and package the grain for export to the US as soon as he gets the go-ahead. Thiam has also been busy working with designers to come up with packaging that will grab an American shopper’s attention and convince them to purchase his fonio.
“We are knocking at the door,” says Chef Pierre, eating a mouthful of fonio, “and we want them to open the door to our products.”