Growing Gluten-Free Fonio At Home

Fonio grain in a heart shape
(Image credit: Michelle Lee Photography)

Gluten-free foods are in high demand, and ancient grains are leading the way with buckwheat, teff, quinoa, and amaranth becoming mainstream. But have you heard of fonio? The fonio plant is an African heritage grain and one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world.

Quick Facts about Fonio

  • Botanical name- Digitaria exilis
  • Height- 20 inches (50 cm)
  • Spread- Approx. 10 inches (25 cm)
  • Sun exposure- Full
  • Soil requirements- Any
  • Hardiness zones- USDA 9-11
  • When to plant- Spring or summer

What Is Fonio?

Fonio, an ancient cereal grain, has been grown in West Africa for thousands of years. Early evidence indicates it was in cultivation 5,000 years ago. It has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and other antiquity sites. Fonio was once reserved for royalty and nobility. Traditionally, fonio served a purpose during Ramadan and in celebrations like weddings.

Fonio seeds are also known as “acha,” “fundi,” and “hungry rice.” Fonio is a whole grain, meaning it has the bran attached, making it high in fiber. There is both white fonio and black fonio. White fonio is the most commonly grown. Digitaria exilis is the plant’s scientific moniker, and it is an annual millet grown for its seed. In Africa, growing fonio is ideal because it is suited to poor, rocky or sandy soils where other cereal grains would not thrive. The time from seed to maturity is 6 weeks to 2 months, much quicker and earlier than other grains.

Fonio Benefits

The early maturity is just one of the fonio seed benefits. As a food, fonio is high in protein, amino acids, and micro-nutrients. Fonio contains iron, zinc, and B vitamins. It’s gluten free and has a low glycemic index, making it ideal for diabetics.

It is primarily grown by small crop farmers, who rely upon the income from this food surging in popularity. Some of the benefits that fonio is known for are:

  • Aids digestion
  • Controls diabetes
  • Prevents anemia
  • Maintains heart health
  • Good for strong bones, hair, teeth
  • Good for skin
  • Provides a slow release of energy

How to Grow Fonio

Fonio grows 20 inches (50 cm) high with a panicle of seeds 6 inches (15 cm) long. Fonio is not cold hardy and requires temperatures of at least 77 F (25 C) to mature and produce the seed. Modern selections may be found that have been bred to reduce “seed shatter,” where the ripe grains fall to the ground before they can be harvested. This meant a loss of much of the crop.

Fornio grows from seed and may be planted in loose, dry soil. It requires irrigation during germination, and light water after the plant is a month old. The seed is broadcast and just barely covered with soil. It germinates in 2-4 days and grows quickly.

Planting, Soil, Light & Water Needs

Fonio is tolerant of almost any soil, even heavy clay if it’s loosened prior to planting. Fonio grows in full sunlight, where temperatures are warm. Partial shade situations will prevent the full formation of the seed heads. It prefers a well draining medium and is a water conservative plant once germinated. In Africa, the plant gets little moisture except from rain. The use of furrows along the rows captures rain, and manure is spread around the plants to keep moisture in the soil.

Problems Growing Fonio

As mentioned, seed shatter can seriously affect crop yields. The fonio crop may also be prey to Pangola stunt, a viral disease that causes yellowing and twisting of stems and leaves, and a stunted inflorescence. It is caused by the whitebacked planthopper. The virus cannot be controlled once the plant has it, but the use of insecticidal soaps can control the planthoppers.

How to Harvest & Use Fonio

In Africa, fonio is harvested with traditional methods. Plants are cut down with a sickle and hung to dry in sheaves. The dried plants are beaten to release the seed, which is then collected. The seeds then need to be dehulled with a mortar.

Fonio is not consumed raw, but should be cooked. It is used like couscous, or made into porridge. It is often ground and used in bread or other flour applications. The grain is often fermented. Whole grains can be popped just like popcorn.

Fonio should be rinsed prior to cooking. One way to cook it is to soak the grain with twice as much boiling water, covered for 5 minutes. It may also be toasted in oil and then simmered on medium heat with twice as much water. Fluff the folio and enjoy as you would rice, couscous, or other grains.

Bonnie L. Grant

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.