Fonio (Digitaria exilis) is a traditional cereal in West Africa, grown by women and men smallholder farmers either as food crop to reduce impacts of the hungry period, to diversify their own diets, or to sell as cash crop. In addition to its role in food security in many areas of Mali, Burkina Faso, and some parts of Niger, fonio is increasingly recognized for its nutritional value as well as an income source for farmers. Its contents of insulin-secreting amino acids (valine, leucine, isoleucine) is higher compared to other cereals such as rice, maize or millet, making fonio suitable for patients of some diseases like diabetes.
Due to the small size of the seed (1 to 1.5 mm in length), processing fonio is a difficult and time-consuming task, especially for women, who have traditionally processed the grain. Some women's groups process fonio into easy-to-cook products for local and urban markets.
In Mali, neither improved varieties nor official agronomic recommendations exist to support farmers in their fonio cultivation. Therefore, this project targeting fonio production in Mali was initiated. In the initial project phase, a fonio germplasm collection was characterized, superior ecotypes were identified for different target zones, seed of these were multiplied, and promising agronomic practices were tested.