I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal, and through a combination of accidents and cosmic justice, became a chef in the US.
When I first arrived in New York, I began working in these restaurants — different types of restaurants — from French bistro to Italian, global ethnic to modern American. At the time, New York was already well-established as a food capital of the world. However ... with the exception of a few West African and Ethiopian mom-and-pop eateries, there was no such thing as African cuisine in the entire city.
Early in my life, I was influenced by Senegal's first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, nicknamed, "the poet president," who talked about a new humanism, a universal civilization, in which all cultures would come together around a communal table as equals, each bringing its own beautiful contribution to share. He called it "the rendezvous of giving and receiving." That concept resonated with me, and it has guided my career path.
After years of working in restaurants, I yearned for my work to have a deeper impact that would go beyond the last meal I had served. I wanted to give back, both to New York — the city that allowed me the opportunity to follow my calling — but also to my origins and ancestors in Senegal. I wanted to contribute to that universal civilization Senghor had described. But I didn't know how to make a measurable impact as a cook and writer.
While I was writing my first cookbook, I often traveled to different regions of Senegal for research. During one of those trips, in the remote, southeast region of Kédougou I rediscovered an ancient grain called fonio that had all but disappeared from the urban Senegalese diet. It turns out that fonio had been cultivated for more than five thousand years and is probably the oldest cultivated cereal in Africa. Once a popular grain on much of the continent, fonio was grown all the way to ancient Egypt, where archaeologists found grains inside pyramids' burial grounds. Today it is mostly cultivated in the western part of the Sahel region, from Senegal to Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Nigeria. The Sahel region is that semiarid area south of the Sahara desert that extends from the Atlantic in the west to the Red Sea in the east. I became more interested in this grain that was deemed worth taking to the afterlife by early Egyptians.
As I continued my research, I found out that fonio was actually — wherever it was cultivated — there was always some myth, or some superstition connected to it. The Dogon, another great culture in Mali, called it "po," or, "the seed of the universe." In that ancient culture's mythology, the entire universe sprouted from a seed of fonio.
Aside from its purported mystical properties, fonio is a miracle grain in many aspects. It is nutritious, particularly rich in methionine and cysteine, two amino acids that are deficient in most other major grains: barley, rice or wheat to name a few. In addition, fonio cultivation is great for the environment. It tolerates poor soil and needs very little water, surviving where nothing else will grow.
As a chef, what first struck me was its delicate taste and its versatility. Similar to couscous, fonio has a delicious, nutty and earthy flavor. It can be turned into salad, served as noodles, used in baking or simply as a substitute for any other grains in your favorite recipes. I am happy to share some of my fonio sushi and sweet potato sushi with some of you right now.
In Kédougou it is also nicknamed "ñamu buur," which means "food for royalty," and it's served for guests of honor.
Located at the border with Guinea and Mali, Kédougou first strikes visitors with its stunning vistas and views of the Fouta Djallon Mountains. Sadly, it is also one of the poorest regions of Senegal. Because of desertification and lack of job prospects, much of Kédougou's young population has left. They chose the deadly path of migration in search of "better" opportunities. Often, they risk their lives trying to reach Europe. Some leave by crossing the Sahara desert. Others end up on inadequate wooden canoes in desperate attempts to reach Spain. According to a recent "Guardian" article, by 2020 more that 60 million people from sub-Saharan Africa are expected to migrate due to desertification. This is the biggest global wave of migration since the Second World War, and it's only set to grow. So far this year, more that 2,100 migrants have lost their lives on their way to Europe. This is the reality of Kédougou and of much of the Sahel today. Scary future, scarce food and no opportunities to change their situation.
If life in your village weren't so precarious, if there was a way to having enough food to get by, or having a paying job — if you and your sisters didn't have to spend 30 percent of their waking hours fetching water, if conditions were just a little more hospitable ... could the solution be right here in our soil? Could bringing fonio to the rest of the world be the answer?
Ancient grains are getting more popular, and sales of gluten-free items are growing in the US — 16.4 percent since 2013, making it a 23.3-billion-dollar industry. How could fonio partake in this market share?
There are many challenges in turning fonio into food. Traditional processing is laborious and time-consuming, especially when compared to other grains. Well, thankfully, technology has evolved. And there are now machines that can process fonio in a more efficient way. And as a matter of fact, a few years ago, Sanoussi Diakité, a Senegalese engineer, won a Rolex prize for his invention of the first mechanized fonio processor. Today, such machines are making life much easier for producers around the whole Sahel region.
Another challenge is the colonial mentality that what comes from the west is best. This tendency to look down on our own products and to see crops like fonio as simply "country peoples' food," therefore substandard, explains why even though we don't produce wheat in Senegal traditionally, it is far easier to find baguettes or croissants in the streets of Dakar than it is to find any fonio products. This same mindset popularized the overprocessed, leftover rice debris known as "broken rice," which was imported to Senegal from Indochina and introduced by the colonial French. Soon, broken rice became a key ingredient in our national dish, thiéboudienne, replacing our own traditional, more nutritious African rice, Oryza glaberrima. Ironically, the same African rice despised at home was hailed abroad. Indeed, during the Atlantic slave trade, this rice became a major crop in the Americas ... particularly in the Carolinas where it was nicknamed, "Carolina gold."
But let's return to fonio. How can we turn its current status of "country-people food" into a world-class crop? Last year, a business partner and I secured a commitment from Whole Foods Market, the US's largest natural food store chain, to carry fonio. And we got a large American ingredient importer interested enough to send a team of executives to West Africa with us to explore the supply chain's viability. We found ourselves observing manual operations in remote locations with few controls over quality. So we started focusing on processing issues. We drew up a vision with a beneficial and commercially sustainable supply chain for fonio, and we connected ourselves with organizations that can help us achieve it.
Walking backwards from the market, here is what it looks like. Imagine that fonio is consumed all across the globe as other popular ancient grains. Fonio touted on the levels of cereals, breads, nutrition bars, cookies, pastas, snacks — why not? It's easier to say than quinoa.
To get there, fonio needs to be readily available at a consistent quality for commercial users, such as food manufacturers and restaurant chains. That's the part we're missing. To make fonio available at a consistent quality for commercial use, you need a commercial-scale fonio mill that adheres to international quality standards. Currently, there is no such mill in the whole world, so in our vision, there is an African-owned and operated fonio mill that processes efficiently and in compliance with the requirements of multinational food companies. It is very difficult for the fonio producers today to sell and use fonio unless they devote a huge amount of time and energy in threshing, winnowing and husking it. In our vision, the mill will take on those tasks, allowing the producers to focus on farming rather than processing.
There is untapped agricultural capacity in the Sahel, and all it takes is changing market conditions to activate that capacity. By relieving fonio producers of manual operations, the mill will free up their time and remove the production bottleneck that limits their output. And there are other benefits as well in using Sahel land for agriculture. More benefits, higher employment, climate change mitigation by reversing desertification and greater food security. Nice vision, right? Well, we are working towards getting it done. Last month we introduced fonio to shoppers in New York City and online, in a package that makes it attractive and desirable and accessible.
We are talking with operators and investors in West Africa about building a fonio mill. And most importantly, we have teamed with an NGO called SOS SAHEL to recruit, train and equip smallholders in the Sahel to increase their fonio production.
Hunger levels are higher in sub-Saharan Africa than any other place in the world. The Sahel population is set to grow from 135 million to 340 million people. However, in that drought- and famine-prone region, fonio grows freely. This tiny grain may provide big answers, reasserting its Dogon name, "po," the seed of the universe, and taking us one step closer to the universal civilization.