MINNEAPOLIS — Terra Ingredients, LLC by AgMotion had a big year planned for fonio, a tiny ancient grain sourced from West Africa. Now the company is working to overcome obstacles caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19).
A launch of fonio was planned for Natural Products Expo West, but COVID-19 forced the cancellation of that event originally scheduled for March in Anaheim, Calif., said Malick Diedhiou, commodity trader and fonio program manager for Minneapolis-based Terra Ingredients, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AgMotion.
“We are still hoping that at some point in 2021 that we can do an official launch at a trade show,” he said. “That would be great, but in the meantime, we’re definitely shifting all of our focus to online.”
An industrial scale processing plant designed for fonio still should become operational this year in Dakar, Senegal. Since it’s tiny, processing fonio is difficult. Terra Ingredients has developed equipment that works well with the grain.
“Once this processing plant is operational, it definitely will be a game-changer because it will be the only processing plant that will be able to scale fonio and have it in a quality that will be different, a superior quality,” Mr. Diedhiou said.
He added, “We would have hoped to have it done by now, but due to COVID-19 there was a slowdown in getting the machinery installed and calibrated. Once the lockdown eases, it’s not going to take too long before we’ll be able to inaugurate the fonio processing plant.”
Fonio, an ancient grain and a species of millet, has been cultivated in Africa for more than 5,000 years, according to the Whole Grains Council, Boston. It is resistant to drought and grows quickly, producing grain within six to eight weeks of being planted.
Fonio is a gluten-free grain with all the essential amino acids, Mr. Diedhiou said. It contains fiber, protein, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium.
“What’s equally exciting about fonio is it is a super versatile grain,” he said.
Fonio may be used in place of rice, and it is similar to quinoa, Mr. Diedhiou said. Savory dishes are potential applications as are sweet breakfast grain medleys, he said. Iya Foods already offers fonio flour to consumers for $10.99 per lb, and more companies are planning launches of products containing fonio.
“What will help tremendously when it comes to the momentum of fonio is that there are a lot companies with name recognition that are currently working on finalizing plans to launch fonio-based products,” Mr. Diedhiou said.
Terra Ingredients, which offers organic and non-GMO specialty grains, has sufficient inventory of fonio during COVID-19.
“While there were restrictions in place in west African countries, it did not affect us,” Mr. Diedhiou said. “We still have inventory in North Dakota at our affiliate company, Stone Mill.”
AgMotion invested in Stone Mill, LLC in 2017 to help expand its raw ingredient processes and capacity.
Terra Ingredients also has fonio inventory near a port in Dakar. Farmers begin planting fonio in late June or early July. Harvest starts in late October and runs through January. Guinea, Senegal and Mali make up the heart of the fonio belt in the Sahel region. COVID-19 continues to cause shutdowns in the region, Mr. Diedhiou said. On May 28, there were 3,446 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Guinea, 3,253 in Senegal and 1,116 in Mali.