That’s Not Sand, It’s The Next Superfood (#GotBitcoin?)
Entrepreneurs face hurdles trying to turn obscure African plants into the next breakthrough product. That’s Not Sand, It’s The Next Superfood (#GotBitcoin?)
The hunt for America’s next superfood is on, and New Yorker Philip Teverow thinks he has found it in West Africa. That’s why he was standing in the aisle of a Whole Foods in Brooklyn recently trying to entice shoppers to sample a golden grain that looks like sand.
“Try some fonio!” he said. “Delicious ancient grain!”
One shopper took a bite, paused, then declared: “too grainy.” Another offered a tentative “mmm-hmm,” then, once she was out of earshot, confessed it wasn’t for her. “I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
Superfoods is a broad term used to market a range of fruits and grains alleged to have health-enhancing or medicinal properties. It has become a billion-dollar industry. The global quest for the next breakthrough product has now taken a new crop of entrepreneurs to the far reaches of Africa, where fighting poverty through farming is a central part of the sales pitch.
Mr. Teverow is discovering it can be a tall order to persuade Americans to pay for a new superfood. Quinoa and kale have entered the mainstream. Other contenders, such as the horned kimono melon and the hairy, red fruit called rambutan have yet to catch on.
The latest crop of superfood entrepreneurs, including Mr. Teverow, is finding inspiration in West Africa. Startups are promoting moringa, a chewy green plant that is supposed to boost energy, the baobab fruit, from the so-called tree of life, and the Bambara bean. All present their own challenges.
Lisa Curtis learned about the moringa plant during a Peace Corps mission in Niger. She set up Kuli Kuli Foods to sell moringa-based energy bars and supplements.
Working out of her parents’ kitchen in California, she spent a year hustling to persuade owners of local stores to let her stand in the aisles and hawk batches of her products by extolling their nutritional qualities, along with the mission to help family farmers and women’s collectives in Africa.
Early efforts to raise money, she recalls, were an exercise in “being rejected by every type of capital you could think of…painfully rejected.” Then her entire crop of moringa plants in Ghana was destroyed by fire.
Her big break came when Amazon.com Inc.’s Whole Foods grocery chain decided to launch the bars nationwide. She now sells moringa bars, tea and powder. Kellogg Co.’s venture-capital arm has signed on, leading a group of investors that committed $5 million earlier this year.
The founders of Believe In Bambara are pitching the beans as the “ideal plant-based protein isolate,” a gluten-free substitute for flour, and a way to empower African women.
Holly Tassi, one of the co-founders, has been concocting Bambara recipes at home. One of her worst experiments, she says, was ice cream, which she served to her sister and husband one night. “It wasn’t the greatest,” she admits.
Tamara Cohen, the other co-founder, is currently working through 40 frozen Bambara waffles with her husband that were left over from a trade show.
Mr. Teverow co-founded Yolélé Foods to pursue what has become a yearslong effort to turn fonio, which is gluten-free and cooks in five minutes, into the world’s next quinoa. His partner, Senegalese celebrity chef Pierre Thiam, has been marketing fonio at trade shows.
The challenges have been daunting. It grows in the Sahel, a lawless region south of the Sahara, where threats include drought, extremist groups and war spilling out of Mali. At present, there is no mill capable of processing the tiny grain, which is usually husked by hand and eaten by farmers. Once the grass ripens and falls into the earth, it can blend in with the sand and be hard to separate.
When Mr. Teverow took a sample of fonio to a Swiss industrial firm that processes teff, one of the smallest grains in existence, they all looked somber and shook their heads.
“When we showed them fonio,” he recalls, “they said, ‘ah, this is smaller.’ ” They said they would have to create a new mill.
He says the Swiss company has found a way to mechanize the process and could build the mill in greater Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Raising money for an industrial plant in West Africa, one of the least developed parts of the world, is another tough sell.
“Our biggest challenge right now is getting institutional investors to take the jump with us,” Mr. Teverow admits. “The supply chain isn’t ready for prime time.”
For now, he says, his company is supplying fonio to Whole Foods in New York and about 70 health-food restaurants across the country.
He managed to drum up some enthusiasm during his recent visit to the Whole Foods in Brooklyn. He had prepared the fonio in a curry with sweet potatoes and spices.
One young man who sampled it, a student, declared: “That’s actually really good.” But he pushed his cart off without grabbing a bag.
Mr. Teverow was undeterred. “I’ve done this like 400 times today, so forgive me,” he told the next person who stopped.
When that person also left without a bag, Mr. Teverow chuckled. “It’s a slog,” he said.
Fonio: The Grain That Would Defeat Quinoa As King Among Foodies
A Senegalese restaurateur and former Iron Chef contestant wants to bring the West African grain to American consumers.
“I don’t want Americans knowing about fonio,” says Fatoumata Fadiga, sternly shaking her head. Fadiga, an immigrant from Guinea in West Africa, stands in a matching flowered shirt and skirt in the back room of her New York beauty supply shop after a lunch of fonio with stewed chicken and okra puree.
Fonio will be the next quinoa in America, if Pierre Thiam has his way. The chef and restauranteur has big plans for the little grain. In 2008 Thiam published a Senegalese cookbook – Yolele!, which translates to “let the good times roll” in the Wolof language – so that western cooks could easily prepare Senegalese dishes. He even battled celebrity chef Bobby Flay over papaya (and lost) on the garish, dry ice fog infused Iron Chef show, a show whose brashness is an odd fit for Thiam’s affable, calm demeanor. Since the late 1990s he’s been cooking high-end Pan-African influenced food for his catering company, serving a range of clients from the Clinton Foundation to Mos Def.
His next project is fonio. Fonio is a kind of millet that has a nutty flavor – a cross between couscous and quinoa in both appearance and texture. It has been cultivated in West Africa for thousands of years, and is a favorite in salads, stews, porridges and even ground into flour. It’s gluten-free and nutritious because of two amino acids, cystine and methionine, which make it a favorite to be baked into bread for diabetics, those who are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease. It is, in short, the perfect new grain for juice-cleansing, diet-conscious yogis … if they can get their hands on it.
Thiam, a chef and entrepreneur from Senegal living in New York City, is preparing to import fonio by the end of 2014 for mainstream US consumption, working with a women-owned and -operated collective in Senegal near the Mali and Guinea border. Fonio will start its US journey, as so many immigrants do, in New York. In the city’s Little Senegal neighborhood, you can order fonio á la sauce mafé, peanut beef stew with fonio.
Fonio is currently for sale in New York’s West African shops, amid pungent smells and little baggies of mysterious-looking herbs with no labels; it costs about $6 for a 32oz bag. Fonio can also be purchased online from importers.
But Thiam knows that in order for fonio to appeal to the average US consumer it needs to be rebranded and presented in an American-friendly context. He’s currently designing packaging that would look lovely sitting on a shelf in Whole Foods or selling on a gourmet food website. Branding and packaging are key to fonio’s American adventure. “You really realize how superficial people are,” says Thiam, with a laugh.
Unlike quinoa, which is disappearing from South American diets to make way for western imports, fonio is a relative reject in Africa.
“We thought everything that came from the west was better, that’s the tragedy of colonization,” explains Thiam. Many Senegalese would rather have a baguette at the table than fonio; some consider it an unsophisticated food from the countryside.
Thiam knows what he’s up against in trying to get fonio to become popular. The average cosmpolitan American eats an array of foreign foods, from baba ganoush to burritos, but suggest a bowl of beef knuckle soup or thiebou jen, the classic Senegalese dish of fish with rice, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. “People just don’t realize that under the right circumstances, no one eats better than us,” says Thiam. With the exception of Ethiopian cuisine, he’s found that even most New Yorkers can’t conceptualize food from sub-Saharan Africa. It’s completely alien to many.
It’s time for that to change, Thiam says.
“Africa has so much to offer,” says Thiam, tall and slender with thick-framed glasses. In an accent tinged with Wolof, Portuguese Creole and French, he emphasizes it’s not just the cuisine. Africa’s cuisine sounds like the kind of thing that fits perfectly with the foodie movement in the US, particularly in places like Brooklyn and San Francisco. “It’s the ingredients, the technology, the techniques—fermentation, it’s so big in Africa.”
Since his 1989 arrival in New York, Thiam, has devoted the majority of his culinary career to demystifying Senegalese foods for the non-Senegalese.
Thiam generated some culinary buzz with his two trendy Senegalese restaurants, now closed, in Brooklyn, where he lives with his American wife. He served fresh fish stuffed with peppers, chicken with lime onion sauce, salads of black eyed peas or avocado and mango. Many Senegalese dishes have French, Vietnamese and Lebanese influences, vestiges of Senegal’s colonized past.
“My goal was to introduce this cuisine to the community that adopted me, but make it accessible,” explains Thiam.
Yet despite Thiam’s efforts, most New Yorkers who have not been to West Africa are still not familiar with Senegalese foods. Senegalese comprise a small immigrant group by the city’s standards, approximately 9,000, compared to over 350,000 Chinese for example, and five Chinatowns throughout the boroughs. There is an area nicknamed “Little Senegal”, on Harlem’s 116th Street, not far from Columbia University. The streets are full of West African shops and no frills eateries, but non-West Africans rarely go except for the tourists who found it in a guidebook or the occasional intrepid foodie. You can even purchase DVDs of Senegalese or Malian music, or traditional robes and skirt sets. There are grocery stores and cafes that serve heaping $10 plates, possibly stewed cassava leaves or spicy lamb stew, usually with rice or fonio.
Thiam became frustrated that Senegalese cuisine was not quite catching on. He also wanted to make a positive economic and psychological impact within Senegal, so Thiam launched AfroEats in 2011 when he closed his second restaurant. The goal of AfroEats is to catapult Senegalese foods and products into the city’s culinary limelight harnessing the power of celebrity chefs, the need for the next culinary trend, and Americanized marketing.
One facet of AfroEats takes well-known chefs to Senegal; they sample foods, visit markets and learn cooking methods from Senegalese chefs. Thiam hopes that at some point, a chef like Mario Batali will serve risotto made with fonio – and state it on the menu – instead of Arborio rice. Perhaps artisanal pink salt from Senegal’s Lake Retba will sit on a prestigious restaurant’s tables, as well as dishes of baobab ice cream or coffees favored with Selim pepper. AfroEats also aims to make Senegal a culinary travel destination, similar to what Peru has accomplished.
That’s not easy either.
“ I’m working on two fronts. There are a lot of biases in Africa, ” says Thiam. “There’s a stigma with everything that’s local” – a situation that’s difficult to imagine in New York, where anything locally -sourced is worshiped among locavore and foodie types.
Thiam never thought he’d be extolling the virtues of fonio or organizing culinary exchange trips to Senegal when he arrived here. His short visit turned into a 24-year stay. While on a stopover from Dakar to Ohio, where he had intended to study physics and chemistry, Thiam visited a friend. He lived in an exceptionally seedy, rat-infested Times Square hotel, full of Senegalese immigrants, at a time when Times Square was dangerous and crime-ridden. On Thiam’s third day, all his cash was stolen.
“From my transportation to Ohio, to like, my breakfast the next day,” recalls Thiam, who laughs about it now. He immediately jumped into bussing tables at a West Village restaurant where the kitchen captivated him. He was astounded to find men there. “It was very new. I was from a culture where the kitchen belongs to women,” says Thiam.
Too embarrassed and proud to ask his family for help or return home to Senegal, Thiam remained in Manhattan. He meticulously studied his new textbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Childs, and worked his way up from dish washer to prep cook; salad person to line cook; finally chef and restaurateur.
Thiam’s commercial kitchen, where he cooks for his catering company, is in Little Senegal. Nearby, a small group of men wearing a variety of robes, street clothes, kaftans and kufi caps socialize. When asked what they think of fonio selling in the mainstream US consumer market, they answer in a chorus of approval, slightly amused that a non-West African would ask. One man says it would be a tremendous economic boost for countries like Senegal, Mali and Guinea.
However, not everyone in Little Senegal is happy about the idea of mass-fonio-ization of the American diet.
Ms Fadiga, who is from Guinea, concedes large scale fonio exports would be profitable for Guinea’s farmers, but she’s apprehensive about massive market demands from abroad. It’s a concern that’s easy to understand given the history of Africa’s people, land and resources being exploited by the west.
Fair Trade certification protects some farmers and communities in developing countries. There are now Fair Trade quinoa brands, as some in Andean communities were no longer able to eat it because of skyrocketing demand and price over the past 12 years.
Will Thiam’s fonio be certified Fair Trade? Thiam says his fonio is fair trade in the sense that he conducts his business fairly, simply put, “They trust me and I trust them.”
Does Ms Fadiga have to worry about a fonio frenzy? Yes and no. It remains to be seen whether Thiam’s AfroEats can usher in a Senegalese food movement – and whether fonio can knock quinoa off its Whole Foods pedestal.
But here’s one sign: two blocks north of Little Senegal, an upscale American-owned bistro featuring Afro-Asian-American cuisine serves an entree of wild bass with “African fonio” for $26. Serving fonio in a trendy Harlem restaurant to a mix of New York diners would be a definite nudge into the culinary limelight. But in an odd twist, it’s been revealed they are serving faux fonio; it’s just millet cultivated in the US. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery for fonio, which has now achieved enough modest recognition to be counterfeited.
When it comes to cereals, our choices have been changing and searching for tastier, easy to cook, gluten free and nutritious variety of cereals. Many millets and other grains are fast becoming popular in Europe and America. Quinoa, sorghum, amaranthare popular amongst others. One name which is not so popular in America is Fonio. It is touted that Fonio would “defeat quinoa as king among foodies.” This quinoa competitor – Fonio is native to West Africa region.
Fonio grains are part of millet family. In fact, fonio has the smallest seeds in millet speicies. The name is derived from Wolof name foño. Digitaria exilis or Fonio has long history of cultivation in Africa. This millet is harvested within 6-8 weeks since cultivation, making it world’s fasted maturing cereal. During summer season when there is no other grain to make food, fonio grains becomes “grain of life” to destroy hunger. That is why it is called ‘hungry rice’.
This grain which was once grown for sustenance, is now eaten for its taste and nutritional qualities. Fonio has a nutty flavor and texture and is easily cooked. In Africa it is used in various forms in salads, stews, porridges, bread or other recipes made from fonio flour. Once rejected and neglected crop of Africa is once again gaining attention. Thanks to the mechanization which has made its dehusking of the small grains easier and affordable. Today Fonio is available in markets in France and other parts of Europe. This grain which was meant to solve food security problem in Africa is now one of the fastest growing cereals in other parts of world.
Three varieties of Fonio are popular globally. White fonio (Digitaria exilis) is the most common variety. Black fonio (Digitaria iburua) is a similar crop grown in parts of Africa including Jos-Bauchi Plateau of Nigeria, northern part of Togo, and Benin. Raishan (Digitaria cruciata var. esculenta) is grown in parts of Khasi hill in North east province of India. Its glutinous flour is used for bread and porridge.
Nutritional Facts of Fonio
Like other cereals, Fonio is rich in carbohydrate which makes it good energy food. Fonio composition compared to other cereals. Carbohydrate, protein and fat profile of Fonio can be closely compared to Sorghum. Fonio grains also supply body with good amount of Vitamin B and minerals like calcium, iron and phosphorus. It offers body good amount of amino acids; nearly 10% of the cereal by weight comprises of protein. Protein profile suggests that it offer spectrum of essential amino acids. When compared to amino acid profile of eggs, it shows that while eggs offer more lysine compared to fonio, fonio is superior in other amnio acids like isoleucine, valine, tryptophan, theronine, phenylalanine, leucien, cystine and mentionine. Compared to other cereals, fonio is rich in sulphur containing amino acids – methionine and cystine. All this makes fonio a nutritious cereal. In book – Lost Crops of Africa: Grainsby National Research Council, it is mentioned that the proteins in the grain are not easily extractable but is easier to digest compared to other millets. Fonio does not contain any glutenin or gliadin proteins or in other word it is gluten free.
Health Benefits of Fonio
This ancient grain has been traditionally used in regular food. Its nutrition and health benefits have been known to people. Despite of it being beneficial to body, very little research is done on the cereal. Lets discuss some benefits of this cereal.
Fonio As Energy Food
Fonio has been used as staple food to meet the daily energy requirement. It offers 3.6 calories per gram of grain, which is comparable to other cereals. Still it is easy to digest and does not sharply increase blood sugar levels. It is becoming popular as breakfast cereal in Europe, as it is filling and easier to cook.
Fonio Is Gluten Free
Many people across US and other countries today suffer from Celiac disease. This is due to the intolerance to their body towards gluten. Only way of treating this disease is to avoid gluten food. Most of the energy food we eat including wheat, corn etc. contains gluten. Fonio offers a good alternative of gluten free energy food to people.
Fonio Aids Digestion
Fonio is easier to digest and is recommended for children and elderly people. It has ample amount of fibers which are required to keep digestive tract smooth. It helps in bowel movements and prevents constipation. Fonio is believed to stimulate appetite and secretion of digestive juices. In some parts of Africa, Fonio is offered as food to people suffering from stomach problems.
Fonio Aids Cardiovascular Function
Fonio has small seeds and is generally consumed in dehusked but whole form. Research suggests that consuming whole grain reduces risk of cardio vascular disorders including heart disease and stroke. The barn and germ of fonio are rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients which helps to keep our heart healthy.
Fonio Is Good For Diabetes
Fonio has been long used as diabetic food. Fonio has low glycemic index. It is absorbed in body slowly and thus effect on blood sugar is gradual. Fonio is also believed to have insulin secreting properties and aids in controlling blood sugar levels in body. Early lab studies also suggest benefits of fonio in diabetes due to its low GI compared to other daily foods. Fonio also provides body with minerals chromium and sulphur containing amino acids which are believed to reduce inflammation and diabetes.
Fonio As Weight Loss
Fonio is promoted in west as weight loss food. This energy food offers good amount of fibers and gives feeling of filled stomach. With low glycemic index, it can help body reduce food cravings while providing necessary energy required. Thus it may aid in controlling weight. However no direct evidence is available if it has any impact on fat metabolism or ability to burn fat.
Fonio Benefits For Women
Fonio is highly rich in essential amino acids, folic acid and iron. Thus it plays important role in iron metabolism. It is good in preventing anemia. This nutritious food is traditionally recommended for pregnant and lactating women in Africa.
Fonio Benefits For Skin And Hair
Methionine is sulphur containing amino acid present in fonio which is important for formation of cartilage. It strengthens your nails and hair. It aids in preventing hair loss. Methionine has also anti-aging effect on your skin and aids in reducing signs of aging. Similarly, amino acid cystine is building block for our skin and hair. It also helps in detoxification and thus keeps our skin healthy. Cystine helps in healing wounds or burns.
Other Benefits Of Fonio
Fonio offer body with adequate supply of essential amino acids – Methionine and cystine. Together they aid liver function and helps in detoxification process. Some early studies point out to their benefits in preventing liver damage and colon cancers. They are helpful in drug removal symptoms.
Caution Over Fonio
Like other millets, fonio offers body with phytonutrients which may reduce levels o thyroid hormones in body and lead to hypothyroidism. While this property can be helpful for people with hyperthyroidism, but people suffering from hypothyroidism should avoid fonio.
Other Uses of Fonio
Fonio grain is used in making animal feed. Fonio straw is generally used as animal fodder or used as filler material in construction. Fonio straw is used as biomass for fuel in rural Africa.
Culinary Uses of Fonio
Fonio is considered prestige food for chefs. It is becoming popular for its delicate flavor and taste. Fonio is consumed in various ways like porridge, couscous. Fonio grain is used in a variety of ways. For instance, it is made into porridge and couscous. Fonio flour is used in making breads, desserts or even spaghetti or pasta. Tchakpalo is beer fermented from fonio in northern Togo. Wusu-wusu is couscous made from fonio in many parts of west Africa. Tuwo acha or kunu acha are porridge made from white fonio in Nigeria. Boiled fonio is generally consumed with vegetable stew, fish or meat. Fonio holds special place in Senegalese recipes.
Healthy Fonio Recipes
Fonio Pilaf – Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a pan and add some chopped onion, garlic, cumin seeds, peeled tomato, pepper, turmeric and meat peices. Add salt as per taste. Once onionis light brown add to this about 10 cups of water. Allow the ingredients to simmer for a while. Add some freshly cut cabbage, cauliflower, peas and carrot to mixture and allow simmering for a while. Remove cooked vegetables aside. Add to the mixture, 2 cup of fonio and cook with meat for 5 minutes. Serve the fonio along with cooked meat and vegetables.
Fonio Cakes – To about 650 grams of sugar add about ½ liter of water and allow it to dissolve. Add 3 eggs, ½ cup of dried milk and ½ cup of margarine. Mix well. Take about ½ kg of fonio flour and ½ kg of wheat flour. Add the flour gradually to mixture and keep kneading with a spatula, till the paste is smooth. Allow this paste to stay for half hour. Then take cake tins and grease it with some butter. Add about 10gram of yeast to the flour mixture and then fill cake tins. Preheat oven at 220°C. Place the cake tin in oven for about 10-15 minutes at 180°C. Allow the cakes to cool and serve with some hot chocolate sauce.
Where To Buy Fonio
Fonio today is available in many food stores in France and parts of Europe. Check for fonio cereals in local market which keep African food
Fonio is also known as hungry millet or hungry koos. In Senegal it is called fundi, findi, eboniaye or efoleb. Other local African names include fonyo, fundenyo, foinye (Fulani), Fini (Bambara), Acha, iburu, aburo (Nigerian), findo (Gambia), afio-warun, ipoga, ova (Togo), Fani, feni, foundé (Mali), foni (Burkina Faso),pende, kpendo, founié, pounié (Guinea), podgi (Benin), pom, pohin (Ivory Coast).
Having a diverse food in your plate is essential for healthy life. Consider adding fonio to your breakfast and enjoy its taste and health benefits.
Fonio Nutrition Facts
Wondering about Fonio nutrition facts? The nutrition facts box found on food labels contains information like calories, protein,carbs, sodium, vitamin C, iron and so on. The nutrients listed on labels are specifically required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and it is the same for every packaged food. Continue reading for more facts about fonio.
While the required nutrition details are good to know, many foods have other interesting nutrients worth knowing about that don’t make it on the label! This is especially true with Fonio. Fonio happens to be a good source of thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, and copper. To earn a “good source” claim (per FDA rules) the food must provide 10-19% of the recommended daily value in one serving of that item.
The chart below gives Fonio information for these six vitamins and minerals. Why are these six vitamins and minerals important? The quick answer is that your body needs a regular infusion of certain amounts of nutrients to function properly. When your body functions properly you feel better and stay healthier; sometimes you can even minimize risks of chronic diseases through what you eat. The B vitamins – thiamin, niacin and B6 – are key in maintaining a healthy nervous system. Both magnesium and copper play a role in nervous system health too.
In addition, magnesium is important in helping with muscle and bone health and copper has a role in red blood cell function and brain health. Folate is very important to brain health and it is critical to red blood cell production for babies in utero (that’s why pregnant women are prescribed a folate supplement). With busy days it can be a challenge to plan for, or eat, well-balanced meals. We often hear the message to consume foods of all colors of the rainbow and to eat a variety that includes all the food groups. Get Fonio.
Following this simple advice can make consuming a healthy diet a little bit easier. Depending on food choices most people do manage to eat adequate amounts of B vitamins, folate, magnesium, and copper most days. These nutrients are found in foods like whole grains, seeds and nuts among others. When you’re choosing your grains for the day don’t forget to include Fonio – the good source for thiamin, niacin, B6, folate, copper and magnesium.