SynFonio us a food processing company that explore and discover the vast potential that Fonio (acha) has to offer and to share it with the world. Fonio is such an old grain that remains under developed in terms of the research that has gone into it, the mechanisation of its agriculture and the invention of new ways to eat and enjoy it. PLATEAU NEWS had a chat with Umar Turaki, one of the brain behind this wonderful idea, excerpts;
Why did you decide to go into Fonio processing?
It’s a more or less virgin industry. So little has been done in terms of harnessing all that fonio (acha) has to offer as a product. I first had the idea of turning fonio into market friendly product nearly eight years ago, and it was just one of those ideas that I carried with me through the years. Then when I discovered that one of my closest friends also had similar ideas and intentions, we decided to combine our efforts to see what we could accomplish. Someone asked me, “Why acha? Why not something easier, like wheat?” I went into this business precisely because it is fonio. It has a unique set of challenges, an opportunity to try to create something that never existed before. Wheat has been a mass market product for hundreds of years. Fonio is basically at its infancy, and the creative, commercial, and cultural opportunities that presents are endless. I see it as a call to adventure that I simply couldn’t resist.
Tell us more about why you think Fonio is unique?
Fonio is cultivated only in West Africa. Of all the countries and regions of this world, it is only a handful of nations that are naturally blessed with this precious grain. The irony is that we as a culture are barely aware of what we have. Fonio is unique in that it has an interesting mix of nutritional benefits when compared to other grains. It contains an impressive composition of amino acids, chief among them cysteine and methionine, which are essential amino acids. It’s also a great source of dietary fibre. As a friend of mine says, it’s good old fibre and protein. It also has a low glycaemic index count, which is the chief quality that makes it ideal for diabetics. This basically means that its impact on blood sugar levels isn’t as drastic when compared to other grains. Culturally speaking, I can’t think of any other grain that can be said to be African in the truest sense. You probably have grains like teff, but fonio is widely regarded as the oldest African grain and plays an important role in cultural events and rites of passages across West Africa, even featuring in the creation myth of the Dogon people of Mali.
To your understanding how much of Fonio is known to the rest of the world?
Fonio is still a relatively unknown grain, even within Nigeria. Very little has gone into it in terms of research. Even we don’t fully understand what we have in this grain, scientifically speaking, not to mention the rest of the world. There is a certain awareness of it among health aficionado circles in the West, but it remains obscure. We have one or two people attempting to introduce it into Western diets, like professional Senegalese chef, Pierre Thiam, who is currently trying to see how it can become a menu item in high end restaurants in New York and around the US.
How do you intend to change that with your product?
Very simply put, our goal is to transform fonio into a mass market product. Our dream is to see a box of fonio, in a variety of forms, on every table, next to your oatmeal, cornflakes, and other cereals. Fonio already has a lot going for it, so that potential is there. We just need to harness it by making a lot of noise about this little grain, and finding creative ways of presenting it.
Do you have enough supply to take your product nationally?
The issue of supply may be our largest challenge as producers of fonio goods. Because the industry is so young, nearly all of the processing is done manually. Many farmers have discarded fonio as a cash crop in favour of the more popular grains required for industrial use. And processing fonio is very hard labour. It isn’t farfetched to say it is possible that at the current rate of cultivation and production, the growing demand for fonio may outstrip its supply. As it is, the farmers can’t process the grain fast enough to meet the demand for it. While this whole fonio thing is the perfect playing ground for the private sector, this issue of cultivation and mechanisation is where I can see the government stepping in. For instance, if farmers had access to machines that could thresh, dehull, and destone their fonio, their standard of living would improve, while at the same time the price of fonio would be positively impacted downstream.
What are your hopes for the future of Synfonio?
I see Synfonio Foods becoming the major contender globally when it comes to fonio. We are trying to be deliberate in our branding, marketing, and how we position ourselves on the market. For example, we have Twitter (@synfoniofoods), Facebook (/synfoniofoods), Youtube (synfoniofoods), and Instagram (@synfoniofoods) accounts, and we do our best to remain active and accessible across all channels. We want to be responsible in how we procure, process, and distribute our products, and we want to create strong relationships across our supply, manufacturing, and distribution chains. Just because we operate out of a small factory and have a small management team and only four production staff doesn’t mean we can’t be a world class company. We aim to touch lives positively, from the farmer who supplies our grains to the eater who picks up the finished product on the shelf. Furthermore, our name indicates that we are all about fonio. While some may see this as a limitation, we see it as creative opportunity to invent products that have never before been experienced by any market in the world. Like I said, it’s nothing short of a call to adventure. And we embrace it with all the courage and imagination we can muster!