Google ‘fonio’ and you’re confronted with an odd mix of results. Some British press coverage has presented the ancient African grain as the next superfood du jour or the “new quinoa”, which conjure up unfortunate images of Islingtonites called Mungo and Cosima crucifying the poor stuff in an overpriced claggy salad.
This, unsurprisingly, wasn’t the angle the team from GLP Films went for in their documentary The Most Nutritious Grain You’ve Never Heard Of. The film is the second in their series of web-based shorts produced in partnership with National Geographic, and was shot in Senegal – the heart of fonio country. The film focusses on the grain’s pivotal role in the West African nation’s cultural life (new mothers, for example, are massaged with it just after giving birth), as well as highlighting its huge potential as an extraordinary weapon in the fight against malnutrition.
“We were able to explore fonio’s health benefits and cultural importance through two unique characters,” GLP Production Manager Jenny Ersbak tells me. “Dr Wade [professor of physiology and human nutrition at the University of Dakar] and Aya Ndiaye [president of the fonio-producing Gie Koba Club Co-operative] both contributed incredible enthusiasm and knowledge of fonio, but from very opposite ends of the spectrum – academically and personally. It was a nice balance.”
The grain, we discover, is a staple of the Senegalese diet. It’s eaten as a porridge for breakfast, mixed with rice or yassa for lunch, or served with mafé – a spicy peanut and meat stew which became a favourite with the GLP crew.
Misleadingly nicknamed “hungry rice” by European settlers, who mistakenly thought locals were growing it out of necessity rather than for its nutty flavour and culinary versatility, gluten-free fonio is nutrient-packed – especially rich in amino acids missing from modern grains such as wheat, rice and barley. It also requires very little water, so is easy to grow in arid conditions, requires no pesticides, and can be ready to harvest only 6 – 8 weeks after planting.
Fonio could make a sizeable dent in Sub-Saharan Africa’s dismal hunger statistics, not to mention knocking over-farmed quinoa off its wholefood perch, so you can see why Western health nuts and malnutrition researchers alike are getting so excited about it.
It’s clearly prime subject matter for documentary makers too, though Senegal isn’t exactly the most well-trodden of locations – something the GLP crew discovered the hard way on their 450 mile cross-country drive to the co-operative from capital city Dakar. After suffering three burst tyres on the rough Senegalese roads, the team and their van packed full of equipment took a rather testing twenty hours rather than the expected seven to reach the women’s co-operative at Kedougou, meaning an exhausted crew had a far-reduced filming schedule.
“Moments like that bring the crew a lot closer. You’re forced to bond, embrace the chaos together, and run with it,” says Ersbak. “We now affectionately refer to everyone who had to undertake that journey as being part of ‘Crewdougou’ [after Kedougou – their eventual destination] .”
But at least they had the comfort of a super-nutritious meal when they did arrive.