Fonio, green light for ancient grain from Africa in EU


Coming from Mother Earth is another superfood, fonio. Ancient grain with many virtues, the sale of which is now officially allowed in Europe as well, thanks to the new ‘Novel Foods‘ regulation. (1)

Fonio, the oldest grain in Africa

Phonium (Digitaria exilis) is an herbaceous plant in the Gramineae family. Native to West Africa-where it has been cultivated since 5000 BC. – it is still widespread throughout the belt between Senegal and Chad. The plant- resilient by nature, thanks to deep roots that absorb moisture even in dry soils-is about 45-50 cm tall. Ripening is rapid (2-4 months, in low rainfall areas) and yields range from 0.2 to 0.5 t per hectare. Without the need for any agrotoxics. (2)

In the mythology of the Dogon ethnic group of Mali, Amma-the creator of everything-made the entire universe from the explosion of a single grain of fonio, located inside ‘the egg of the world.’ And indeed it is called ‘the germ of the world,’ this ancient cereal still able to alleviate at least some of the region’s ‘food security‘ problems.

Phonium production has been growing steadily, over the past decade, with an annual growth rate of 6.8 percent (373 to 673 K tons, from 2007 to 2016). In response to the significant increase in population and demand for food, West Africa. Guinea is the top producing country (78 percent), followed by Nigeria (12 percent), Mali (5 percent) and Côte d’Ivoire (3 percent). Consumption takes place in the same countries of production, with exports close to zero (no more than 0.03%, during 2007-2016). (3)


The phonio lends itself To the most varied preparations. Cooked like cous-cous, seasoned with oil or vegetables and stewed meats. Skipped like the


, or dipped in breakfast cereal soups (


). As well as being used in the preparation of bread and beer.

It is agluten-free cereal with an excellent amino acid supply, also valuable for vegetarians and vegans. Indeed, the amino acid profile of its protein was found to be comparable to that of the whole egg, albeit with some differences (less lysine, more methionine and leucine). Rich in iron, it is characterized among other things by a lower glycemic index than other gluten-free grains. (4)

Fonio, now also in Europe

Commission Regulation EU 2018/2016 of 18.12.18 authorized the placing on the market of hulled grains of Digitaria exilis as a traditional food from a third country. Under the new EU Novel Foods Regulation, where a simplified authorization procedure has been introduced in favor of foods that have a proven track record of consumption. (5)

Indeed, documents considered by the European Commission attest to the safe and historically proven food use in West African countries-in Guinea, Nigeria, and Mali, especially-of hulled grains of Digitaria exilis. Which are consumed as such and as ingredients in other foods.

There is a glimpse of the opportunity – for phonio like teff – to bring the know-how European to foster the development of supply chains from a participatory and mutualistic perspective, serving local communities (rather than exclusively benefiting the business of the Global North). This could reduce manual labor for separating grains and develop trade, fair and supportive.

Dario Dongo


(1) See reg. EU 2015/2283

(2) T. Beta, C. Isaak, ‘Grain production and consumption: overview‘, Science Direct (2016)

(3) V. ‘World: Fonio – Market Report. Analysis and forecast to 2025‘, IndexBox (2018)

(4) See Bioversity International, ‘Nutritious Underutilized Species: fonio’ (2013).

(5) Pursuant to reg. EU 2015/2283, Articles 14-20