Chef Pierre Thiam secures $1.98m to boost fonio production in Africa and empower women farmers

By Gill Hyslop contact

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Pierre Thiam is passionate about spreading the powerhouse nutrition of the West African ancient grain fonio. Pic: WAAG
Chef Pierre Thiam is passionate about spreading the powerhouse nutrition of the West African ancient grain fonio. Pic: WAAG

Related tags: Yolele, Ancient grains, Fonio, Mali Shi SA, women empowerment, smallholder income, Africa, Mali

A new joint venture between Chef Thiam’s US-based West African fonio brand Yolélé and Mali Shi SA, a shea butter manufacturer that provides income to tens of thousands of women through its proprietary sourcing operations, has received a $1.98m grant from USAID’s Prosper Africa.

Mali-based West African Ancient Grains (WAAG) is an agro-processing operation that plans to turn fonio into a cash crop to provide a source of income for farmers in the Sahel region, one of the world’s most vulnerable areas.

Fonio is a drought-tolerant, gluten-free nutritional powerhouse that has been grown in West Africa for over 5,000 years, that can be used like any other grain.

Yolélé has been promoting the ancient grain in the US since 2017, in collaboration with ingredients importer Woodland Foods since 2017. Under Chef Thaim’s direction, its use in products have gained wide distribution across the US.

The new JV with Mali Shi SA now wants to spread the message globally.

Mali Shi SA has the only industrial-scale shea butter manufacturing facility in the country, along with a network of over 23,000 West African smallholder farmers, most of them women.

Addressing the UN’s SDGs

WAAG has received a $1.98m grant from the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) West Africa Trade & Investment Hub (Trade Hub) through Prosper Africa, which will be used to establish a new processing centre in Bali’s capital Bamako where it will develop and promote market-ready products.

WAAG addresses 11 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The newly-formed company wants to create a supply chain that traceably connects smallholder farmers living in extreme poverty with local and global markets for biodiverse, climate-resilient crops through efficient processing. WAAG is set up to process thousands of tons of ancient grains, including fonio, millet and sorghum, contracting thousands of smallholder farmers and helping them increase productivity by training in improved agronomic practices. The project will create 13,714 agricultural jobs in Mali, and $4.5m in collective smallholder sales over the next two years.

Changing the landscape

“Efficient processing has always been the missing link preventing farmers from earning livelihoods from fonio,”​ said Thiam.

“Fonio is easy for smallholders to grow, but turning it into food is hard. There is no fonio processing facility in the world that can meet the volume and quality requirements of large global food companies looking for feasible ways to meet their UN SDG's.

“We devoted a lot of resources to find a technical solution to industrial-scale processing, and a strong local partner at the source.

“West African Ancient Grains can deliver GFSI-compliant fonio, millet and sorghum flour for flexible applications to major food manufacturers. That changes the landscape in terms of farm income and traceable impact at scale.”

Yolélé is a purpose-driven African brand based on underutilized African ingredients, currently available in over 2,000 grocery stores across the US, including Whole Foods Market and Target Superstores.

While Yolélé will continue working on creating global demand for fonio, WAAG’s implementation of value chain improvements will increase cash income for families in its grower network by 85%.

Boosting farmer income

“Providing multiple sources of income for the farmers in our growing network has a huge impact on family life and rural landscape,”​ said Simballa Sylla, CEO of Mali Shi.

“It makes financial sense for farmers to engage in sustainable, biodiverse, multi-crop rotations only if they have customers for their harvests. West African Ancient Grains is that customer, an element that has been missing for smallholders in the Sahel.”

The Trade Hub’s co-investment partnership with Mali Shi and Yolélé marks its first in Mali.

“Mali is ripe with opportunities to support economic growth through private investment, create long-term jobs for smallholder farmers, and increase exports of products such as fonio to the US,"​ added Frantz Tavares, public-private partnership manager for the Trade Hub.

“I expect our project with WAAG will prove this and encourage more investment into Mali's high-potential businesses.”

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