BAMAKO — A cart drawn by a trotting donkey enters a little village in Mali, near the border with Burkina Faso. The wind is picking up and will soon swirl and turn into one of the dry storms that sweep away the top soil in these parts. There will be rain, eventually, but it will beat the ground without penetrating it. Men rush to empty the cart, filled to the brim with what seem like weeds. Why the trouble, you wonder?

The "weed" is known to all here as fonio, an edible legume and increasing source of income for Malians. It is one of the very few options on lands exhausted by decades of cotton farming, and more recently, the effects of global warming. The fonio grain could in fact respond to two of Mali's biggest problems: unemployment and malnutrition, which UNICEF states, are killing more people than bullets. In 2016, the country produced just 25,000 tons of fonio, a fraction of the eight million tons of cereals harvested in the country annually.

Economists classify fonio as an under-utilized seed, meaning it is planted by millions of Africans but scantly encouraged by public policies that subsidize "white gold," cotton, and the chemical pesticides that go with that. Fonio and other underused seeds are in fact the overlooked seeds of possible solutions at a time when famine has returned to the continent. But not everyone is ignoring them. One of fonio's ardent promoters is the Swiss NGO Helvetas.

Fonio was derided as a "pauper's cereal." — Photo: Yolélé Foods

Sylvaine Rieg, who took over Helvetas's offices in Mali three years ago, explains that she only works on "niche" problems not being addressed, and leans toward long-term projects (10-12 years). Her agency is financed by Coopération Suisse, a Foreign Ministry agency, and by personal donations (in wills or gifts). Why pick fonio as an economic engine? She says "we've passed from a subsistence to a market economy, to buy things Malians need now. They sell for maximum profits and sometimes prefer this to eating. And yet invisible hunger is enormous."

Like grains of sand

Helvetas teams noticed eight years ago that fonio, to which people traditionally turned in times of famine, was derided as a "pauper's cereal." Harvesting and cooking it was seen as hard work, nor worth the trouble. "We looked for systemic restrictions, and invested only where we could achieve a systemic change," Rieg says.

This specifically took the form of an investment of 66 million CFA francs (used in eight West African countries) or 117,000 Swiss francs (about $115,000) since 2008 for initiatives including researching and developing a new machine and creating a market. The project is happening in an area of 2,364 hectares, and involves 2,257 farmers, including 735 women.

Amos Traore is the vice-president of the farmers union of the Tominian Circle, one of Mali's administrative regions. Shouting over the noise of the thresher, he explains: "This machine takes nine minutes to separate the grains, when it took a woman five hours to do it by hand. It was tiresome work, since fonio is like grains of sand."

Harvesting Fonio — Photo: Kelson

As for buying the seeds, there is no multinational firm in sight, yet. For now, they are gathered on the fields, exchanged or bought dirt cheap. Farmers say they buy them from a local seed merchant, once every three years on average. Workers are paid 1,000 CFA francs (about $1.75) for a day's work in the fields, while the machine costs 1.5 million CFA francs (more than $3,000).

You can see in the country's market stalls the growing taste for fonio, which looks like semolina once prepared, and is often served with a ground nut sauce — and remains the lowest-cost grain on the market.

Yet Sylvaine remains cautious. "This has to work in real life, not just as a project. We have subsidized the first production units to show they work. Now we're working on accessing credits so farmers can invest in these machines, which must yield profits." The latest machine developed in partnership with Helvetas will arrive in the San region (eastern Mali) in November.

After that it will be up to farmers who can expect little backing from the state, which remains indifferent to the crop for now. "It is not really in their philosophy or in line with their indicators," says Harouna Coulibaly, a green farming specialist at the Rural Economy Institute (IER), a public research body. He too has been working for years to promote fonio with authorities, noting that the country's Project for Growth in Agricultural Productivity (PAPAM) previously envisaged using the machines, though nothing came of it. The World Bank, he says, "transfers the money to the government, and then..." This, in a country where 60% of the active population works in farming, and 80% in the countryside. And Mali's Agriculture Ministry? They refused to answer our questions.

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