Mali: Fonio is a healthy, drought-resistant crop

April 14, 2019
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In central Mali’s Ségou region, fonio cultivation is now taking precedence over cereals that are more popular in urban areas. Fonio is increasingly desirable here not only because of its yield, but also because of its health benefits.

Fonio was considered a “food of life” during the famine cycles of the 1980s in Mali. The crop helped many survive this period. Even today, it remains a staple amongst the poorest families in Mali. But in cotton-growing areas of the country such as Ségou, Koulikoro, and Sikasso, fonio has become a popular crop, both for health reasons and because it grows well in a changing climate.

Drissa Traoré is the director of the Mandela women’s co-operative in the Ségou region, where his average fonio yield is 800 kilograms per hectare. He says, “It is really a cereal that fulfills people’s nutritional needs. It is recommended for [people with] diabetes and it eases digestion.”

Mr. Traoré says that, after people learned that fonio was recommended for those with diabetes, the price per kilogram jumped to 650 FCFA ($1.50 CAD) in some places, more than double the price of rice, which sells for 300 FCFA.

Mr. Traoré benefits in more than one way from growing and selling fonio. After weeding, he sells the grains, while the residues serve as food for livestock.

Fonio was once popular only during famines, but has grown to become a staple on every family’s plate and in every farmer’s field. In Segou, 450 families grow fonio on at least 200 hectares.

Fatim Coulibaly is a fonio producer and a member of the Mandela women’s co-operative. She says that fonio production is a central activity for rural women. She adds: “It is easier for us to cultivate fonio than other crops like millet or rice. Not only does it not require abundant rain, but also, with a small piece of land, you can harvest a lot.” She says the women sell fonio in neighbouring cities after harvesting.

Mrs. Coulibaly is an active member of the co-operative and cultivates more than one hectare of fonio. She uses improved seeds supplied by the Institut d’économie rurale in Cinzena, a local research centre. But she doesn’t plant new seeds each year. She explains that, once fonio is cultivated, she can grow it for two years with the same seeds.

Fonio grows during the dry winter period, which rarely exceeds three months. What sets fonio apart is that it doesn’t need much water. Thus it can grow even in those parts of Mali that don’t receive abundant rainfall. Fonio also gives a reasonable yield when soil fertility is low. Its yield and health benefits have resulted in fonio changing from a crop that was largely ignored to one in which farmers are taking a growing interest.

Despite fonio’s advantages, cultivation is not easy. Madou Diarra grows fonio 15 kilometres from the city of Ségou. He says farmers start broadcasting seeds with the first rains, generally sometime in May or June. Weeding is labour-intensive. After harvest, the grain is de-hulled and milled. Processing fonio is labour-intensive and complicated, and often results in the grain becoming contaminated with sand and grit, in part because fonio seeds are so small. There can also be problems accessing markets.

But even with these post-harvest challenges, fonio will continue to be an integral part of farming in this region. And in a country where food security is far from being a reality, farmers are turning more and more to fonio because of its ability to adapt to changes in climate that can result in less rain and higher temperatures.

This story was produced with the support of Lux-Dev, the Luxemburg Agency for Development Cooperation, acting on behalf of and in the name of the program MLI/021, within the FRI project “Interactive radio as a tool for change” in Mali.