The Co-Founder of Yolélé Foods, Philip Teverow believes the tiny African super-grain fonio will improve West Africa’s economy and landscape. Yolélé Food’s budding two pronged effort embraces fonio’s potential by encouraging the grain’s use in American diets and creating a less strenuous supply chain for West African smallholder farmers.
A food industry veteran, Teverow boasts an impressive history of introducing unusual ingredients to the United States and directed Dean & DeLuca, a multinational retailer carrying specialty and unusual gourmet items, during 13 of the multinational retailer’s most formative years. In 2017, Teverow joined forces with renowned chef and Co-Founder Pierre Thiam to release Yolele Foods, introducing fonio to improve the lives of the smallholders growing the grain in West Africa.
Food Tank spoke with Teverow about his inspiration behind Yolélé Foods and his strategy to improve the food supply chain in West Africa.
Food Tank (FT): What is fonio and what kinds of opportunities do you see with it?
Philip Teverow (PT): Fonio is an ancient grain that has been cultivated for over 5,000 years throughout the West African Sahel – the dry band between the Sahara Desert and Africa’s savannas and forests. Fonio in the field looks like grass, and its seeds are not much bigger than regular grass seed. It thrives in tough conditions where little else survives – poor sandy soil with low rainfall. Although easy to grow, fonio’s small seed size and inedible hull make it very difficult to turn it into food.
Fonio is a nutritional powerhouse with three times the protein, fiber, and iron as brown rice. It is far more nutritionally rich than the imported broken white rice currently a staple of the West African diet. While most grains lack essential amino acids, Fonio boasts high amounts of methionine and cysteine, is gluten free and low glycemic, and requires minimal cooking time.
So that’s fonio. We look at opportunity in two ways: impact and business. The impact opportunity is to change the economic and physical landscape of Sahelian West Africa, a region whose primary export is refugees, and whose population of 130 million is projected to double by 2050 – at the same time that climate change makes it harder and harder to grow food there. We believe that fonio can play a key role in increasing per capita income by providing smallholders with more cash and generating jobs in agriculture, transport, and processing. We further believe that fonio can help mitigate the effects of climate change when grown in a regenerative system so that it stabilizes soil, staves off desertification, covers more ground with green, and nourishes a growing hungry population.
Yolélé’s impact opportunity comes down to turning a subsistence grain into a cash crop via a profitable, financially sustainable business model. On the supply side, our model is predicated on the twin initiatives of increasing fonio’s agricultural productivity and achieving processing efficiencies. That means helping farmers produce much more fonio per hectare of land, and turning labor-intensive traditional activities into industrial processes. We are collaborating with African organizations on both of those fronts. SOS Sahel is recruiting, training, equipping, and organizing a network of smallholders in Mali and Senegal in an effort to double their fonio yield. Our processing partner is building the world’s first commercial scale fonio mill, which will purchase fonio from our farmer network. The mill’s efficient processes will reduce the consumer price of fonio in Africa.
Our activities here in the developed world are what drive and justify investment in the supply chain. We think that the business opportunity for fonio is to capture a portion of the grain market in the developed world, and the way to do that is to use fonio as an ingredient in broadly consumed foods like bread and snacks. So here in the United States, our business model is a consumer packaged goods business whose branded products are all centered on fonio.
Current global fonio production is around 600,000 tons, pretty much entirely grown and consumed in West Africa. If we are able to double production via agricultural improvements and processing efficiencies, that would be a tiny sliver of the production volume of major grains, but it would have a tremendous impact on hundreds of thousands in Africa, and it would make Yolélé a substantial business. We project achieving USD$10 million in distributor sales using under 1,000 tons of fonio.
FT: How did you come up with the idea of Yolélé?
PT: Yolélé started with our co-founder chef Pierre Thiam’s lifelong ambition to bring his native West Africa’s culinary treasures to a wider audience and to elevate the international image of West African culture. He and I got together to expand reach – in terms of audience, and in terms of impact. We quickly decided to focus on fonio because it delivers on so many contemporary consumption preferences: a highly nutritious and plant-based heirloom ingredient, exotic image, meaningful tradition, and grocery purchase with purpose. Its broad appeal made it the most likely product to succeed and the most likely to have a real impact.
When we started, we assumed that all we would need to pay attention to was sales and marketing. Before long we realized that with no fonio supply chain suitable for scale, we would have to build one if we wanted fonio to reach its potential. We’ve learned a lot about agronomy and grain milling over the last couple of years!
FT: What implications does growing fonio have for Senegalese farmers?
PT: First let’s be clear that it’s not just Senegal. Fonio grows in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Nigeria among other West African Countries. In all of those countries fonio grows easily on marginal land in areas of low rainfall. Smallholders have relatively little fertile soil available for cash crops, but there is a lot of sandy soil further uphill from the streambeds. If we can create a market for fonio and a way of producing and processing it more effectively, farmers can grow multiple times more of the grain than they do now. They’ll have more to consume, and they can sell the excess for cash. It’s the difference between literally going hungry and having the money to buy livestock or transport, or to build a home whose roof keeps water outside and won’t blow away in a strong wind.
The need for planting, weeding, harvesting, threshing, packaging, and transporting a fonio crop means more jobs in what are now subsistence villages. All of that means economic opportunity in a part of the world that’s currently undergoing a desperate exodus. Plus fonio helps Sahelian farmers mitigate the impacts of climate change with a native crop that has deep roots to prevent erosion and is drought tolerant. We’re hoping to include fonio in a crop system that combats desertification and regenerates the soil by growing alongside other highly nutritious indigenous foods for export and domestic consumption.
FT: What challenges and advantages do you see with introducing fonio to American diets?
PT: It’s always challenging to get Americans to embrace a totally new ingredient. But Americans have proved over and over that they’re eager to explore. With its dietary qualities, fonio should not be too hard a sell. It’s great for those who avoid gluten, and also for those concerned with blood sugar, and it’s easy and fast to prepare. Plus, it makes a sensational tabouli!
FT: How can you ensure that fonio’s rise in popularity sustains beyond being a fad food?
PT: There will always be another next great thing coming around the corner. We think the key to keeping fonio on the table is to use it in foods that solve problems and taste great. As long as we can come up with ways of including fonio in great tasting recipes that fit well with Americans’ cooking and eating habits, and in products that bring something new and desirable to the table, there’s no reason to stop eating it. One of the great advantages we have is fonio’s versatility. It can be prepared in many different ways, and fits well with almost all culinary styles.
FT: What checks and balances can be put in place to ensure fairness along the fonio supply chain?
PT: Because our purpose is economic development in West Africa, we’ve devoted a lot of time to this question. We’re devising our supply chain with fairness in mind. One might think that in an ideal world, farmers would add as much value as possible to the fonio they produce in order to gain the most revenue possible per pound. That was our premise when we first started. But we learned along the way that the truly best solution for processing is to do it centrally. Rural areas do not have the resources to process a commercial grade product, and it would be inefficient – even crazy – to try to install and operate those resources out in the remote countryside. We’ve concluded that the best thing we can do for smallholder farmers is to create conditions that allow them to farm more productively.
The key to ensuring that it’s working out well for smallholders is measurement and monitoring of impact. Our NGO partner SOS Sahel will provide key infrastructure like water, electricity, and other quality of life measures which will be funded partly by sales of Yolélé products. But most critically, they will measure per capita income in each village, by first establishing a baseline and then monitoring changes. If we find that per capita income is not growing, it means we’re doing something wrong, and we’ll have to adjust our approach.