In parts of West Africa, they say that the best way to judge a woman's stamina—essential in a good wife—is to watch her preparing fonio.
Fonio is a grain that people across 15 countries in northwest Africa have enjoyed for centuries. From the Cape Verde Islands to Chad, and from Côte d'Ivoire to Cameroon, fonio (Digitaria exilis) thrives in the sandy, rocky soils of the Sahel, weathers both drought and flood, and grows so fast that two or three crops can be harvested each year. Rich in amino acids and iron, its tiny grains are particularly nutritious for pregnant women and children.
But the cultivation of fonio has all but disappeared because, as the saying implies, preparing it is a task of legendary difficulty. Each kilogram of fonio contains roughly two million seeds (more than 900,000 seeds per pound), and each seed weighs only 0.0005 grams. Two thin husks surround each seed, and they must be removed before the fonio can be cooked. Using a heavy, two-handed pestle in a stone mortar, and adding sand to the grain as an abrasive, the traditional manual husking process requires at least three cycles of pounding and winnowing. This is followed by the tedious separation of seeds from sand, a process that requires large amounts of precious water. As the cash economy spreads into rural areas, West African women have grown increasingly concerned with contributing to family income, and thus have less time available to prepare food.
"I remember that, during my childhood, fonio was served two or three times a week," says Sanoussi Diakité, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer who grew up in southwestern Senegal. But now, he says, husked fonio is three to four times the price of rice. "What used to be a common food has become a luxury. If it were not for people's attachment to this nutritious and tasty cereal, it would have completely disappeared by now."
It was Diakité's nostalgia, combined with his skills as a teacher of manufacturing technology at a Dakar vocational training institute, that led him to tinker with the dream of a mechanical fonio husker.
It took him three years, working after hours and financing his materials from his own modest salary, to build the first prototype. The trick, he says, was to find a way to abrade the grain with enough force to break up the brittle husks, yet gently enough to leave the seeds intact.
Diakité's first full-scale test, in 1993, was a success: 95 percent of the fonio husks were removed, the seeds were intact and, best of all, he had husked two kilos of fonio (4.4 lbs.) in only six minutes, compared to the hour or more that manual husking would have required. Moreover, the machine he had built was simple enough to be mass-produced in Senegal for far less than the cost of rice- or millet-husking machines, so small-scale fonio producers in rural areas might be able to afford it.
A patent in 1994 opened the door to official recognition and support. The next year, the African Development Foundation of Washington, D.C. funded construction of five second-generation prototype huskers and a yearlong study to monitor their use among selected small producers in Senegal, Guinea and Mali. Diakité's most visible recognition came last year, when he won one of five 1996 Rolex Awards for Enterprise. The $50,000 prize, says Diakité, "will provide seed money to get a factory up and running" on the outskirts of Dakar in 1997.
"All fonio producers have been waiting for an efficient husking machine," says Fadima Mariko, a Malian agronomist. Diakité's machine "is undoubtedly a major invention for Africa," says Moctar Dieng of Senegal's Ministry of Energy and Industry. If it sparks a fonio revival, the husker could increase the supply of food in the entire region—and people will have to find another way to judge a woman's stamina.
Karen de Leschery is based in London and writes frequently about the winners of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.