UDS rediscovers ‘Grain of Life’ • Fonio from north to replace expensive wheat flour
Fonio is one of the oldest grown and harvested grains across West Africa.
Fonio (Digitaria exilis), called the “Grain of Life” or “Hungry Rice”, is among the 25 forgotten crops being rediscovered due to their many health benefits.
It is a West African annual millet characterised by tiny seeds, well adapted to hot and dry climates and thrives on marginal soils.
Thus, with increasing adverse climate change and more lands becoming marginal and unsuitable for the cultivation of major grains, fonio can come to the rescue as a food security crop.
It is drought-resistant and restores organic matter in fallow soil. Fonio can be part of a sustainable healthy diet for humans in our changing climate.
Aside from being gluten-free, it is an important dietary source of protein, starch and bioactive compounds, including fibre and polyphenols.
Due to these attractive chemicals, fonio is gaining popularity worldwide as a novel food ingredient.
For example, in West Africa, fonio is used in traditional medicine but more as a food source, such as porridges, flours and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
In Ghana, fonio is cultivated in the Savannah Ecological Zone, particularly in the North East and Northern regions (the Eastern Corridor), but the demand and utilisation is low.
For this reason, the University for Development Studies (UDS), in collaboration with the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom, initiated a project to explore replacing wheat with fonio to bake bread.
This project was funded by Innovate UK under the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) AgriFood Africa Programme.
The research team comprising Prof. Louise Manning, Dr Lilian Korir, Prof. Francis Kweku Amagloh, Dr Dennis Sedem Ehiakpor and Yussif Abdul-Rahman Seini, initiated a grand challenge for the UDS students in the Department of Food Science and Technology to develop a gluten-free consumer-acceptable bread recipe from fonio flour.
At the end of the challenge, the research team organised an exhibition in Tamale on Thursday, March 16, 2023, for groups to showcase their tea, butter and sugar bread recipes.
Bakers, food scientists and regular bread consumers were selected as judges to assess the products.
Three groups, four members each, won cash awards, totalling GH¢13,000, to work with the Business Incubation and Innovation Centre, Business Directorate of UDS, to commercialise their products.
In an interview with the Daily Graphic, the Lead of the Local Implementation Team, Prof. Francis Kweku Amagloh, said fonio was classified as a superfood because it contained a lot of bioactive compounds and was also gluten-free.
“Fonio has a lot of health benefits; it does not contain gluten that negatively affects human health if one is sensitive to it. The bioactive compounds (dietary fibre and polyphenols) promote health. Using fonio flour to bake break means no gluten,” he said.
Aside from its health benefits, he said the grain would also help to reduce the over-dependence on imported wheat flour for bread baking.
Admonishing the students to put the knowledge acquired to good use, he urged the public to patronise fonio bread when it is introduced to the Ghanaian market soon to help improve their health.
He appealed for support to enable the UDS to lead research in the production for local industry and export.
A researcher at the University of Lincoln, UK, Dr Lilian Korir, who represented the UK partners, said: “Nutrition is very key to achieving food security, so we are currently exploring funding opportunities to ensure that we sustain this project.”
“We are also collaborating with various stakeholders to sensitise farmers to the benefits of fonio so that they can prioritise its cultivation,” she added.
The Chief Executive Officer of AMAATI Company Limited, Salma Abdulai, who has been championing the cultivation and consumption of fonio in the country, said the company was supporting farmers with the necessary training, seeds, ploughing services and ready market to help boost the cultivation of the grain.
“The best way to promote fonio is to make its consumption and production easier, so we are currently exporting processed grains and flour to the UK and other foreign countries,” she said.
Some of the students who participated in the competition expressed their excitement and said they had learnt how to bake bread using fonio flour through the competition.
They were excited that they had been able to practicalise what they had been taught at lectures.
Health experts say fonio products provide energy, detoxify the liver and prevent anaemia.
In addition, the “Grain of Life” contains a significant amount of fibre, reduces constipation and bloating, and improves heart health, as it is a low homocysteine food.
It also helps strengthen hair and nails, builds bone and teeth, and controls diabetes.