Most ancient grains available in the US such as quinoa, amaranth, and farro have reached a commercial scale with standardized production processes, but for lesser-known fonio, co-founders Teverow and Senegalese published chef Pierre Tham are essentially starting from scratch, claimed Teverow.
“I want to first be clear that this is a work in progress for us,” Teverow told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We are currently dealing with the existing supply chain and the existing supply chain is highly fragmented.”
Currently, fonio is grown by a smattering of farmers throughout West Africa with very small plots of land with little access to agricultural and commercial resources.
“It’s grown way out in the countryside where there’s not much infrastructure at all. There’s no traceability in that supply chain and there’s no consistency of quality either,” Teverow said.
“We realized we were going to have to introduce an industrial approach to fonio processing and basically build the world’s first industrial scale fonio mill and that’s what we’re working on now.”
Teverow added that building out a commercial supply chain is also intended to improve the income of West African fonio farmers by helping them increase yields, introduce quality control, and provide a market for their crop.
To do this, Yolélé has hired a milling engineer with 40 years of experince building industrial scale mills and is in the process of hiring a CEO for its first milling operation located in Senegal that it aims to be operational by Q1 2020.
The company is also in discussion with several financial impact and strategic investors already involved in grain milling in Africa to soon build a coalition of stakeholders in the mill.
Working with a local NGO, SOS Sahel, Yolélé plans to build a network of 7,000 fonio farming families in Senegal in 2019, and 13,000 farmers in Mali in 2020, according to Teverow.
‘We intend to use fonio in fast-moving categories’
Ancient grains continue to grow in popularity among US consumers with case shipments to US foodservice outlets increasing by double-digits over the past year, according to NPD’s SupplyTrack.
Teverow believes that fonio's more prominent ancestral profile considering the grain is still in earliest stages of commercialization will help it gain consumer interest.
“Most of the foods we eat today are descended from ancestral versions of those ingredients and over generations and millennia through seed selection and seed improvement we’ve turned them into much more usable crops, much more higher-yielding crops that are easier to turn into food,” Teverow noted.
“Fonio is that ancestral ingredient. It has not been improved.”
We have already been talking with some large global food manufacturers who intend to use fonio in baked goods and snacks
Yolélé currently sells its packaged fonio products in select Whole Foods stores on the East Coast and online through Amazon and Thrive Market, but the company eventually wants to incorporate the ancient grain as an ingredient in value-added products, according to Teverow.
“We intend to use fonio in fast-moving categories,” he said.
“We have already been talking with some large global food manufacturers who intend to use fonio in baked goods and snacks as well and they will be off-takers for the mill as well.”
Distribution of Yolélé is currently evenly split between B2C, retailers, and food service. Fonio is on the menu at True Food Kitchen in Chicago and will be added to the menu of a few other vegetable-forward restaurant chains soon.
While there are other suppliers of fonio that exist in the US, acknowledges Teverow, Yolélé believes its product provides “a completely different experience.”
“We are the only one that is really focused on building a commercial supply chain and I think that’s a real distinguishing factor and a commercial supply chain that is beneficial to small holders,” he added.
“In terms of awareness, I think it’s just a tiny tip of pencil point of awareness compared with other ancient grains.”