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Rediscovering Ghana’s Lost Ancient Crops: African Rice & Fonio

Ghana is a country with a rich agricultural heritage. For centuries, its people have cultivated a variety of crops that are adapted to its diverse climates and soils. Some of these crops are native to Africa and have been domesticated by ancient civilizations. Others are introduced from other regions and have been acclimatized by local farmers. However, many of these crops have been neglected or forgotten over time, due to various factors such as colonialism, modernization, globalization, and climate change.

These crops are often referred to as “lost” or “underutilized” crops, because they have not received much attention or support from research, development, or markets.

Nonetheless, there is a growing interest and awareness in rediscovering and promoting these lost ancient crops, both locally and globally. These crops have many advantages and benefits that make them valuable for food security, nutrition, health, income generation, and environmental sustainability. These ancient crops are often:

  • resilient to pests, diseases, droughts, and floods.

  • nutritious and rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.

  • versatile and can be used for various purposes such as food, feed, fuel, fiber, medicine, and cosmetics,; and

  • culturally and historically significant and can enhance the diversity and identity of Ghanaian cuisine.

In this edition of the lost crops from Ghana, we look into two main crops: African rice and Fonio.

African Rice from Ghana
African Rice from Ghana

African rice (Oryza Glaberrima) is one of the two domesticated rice species, along with Asian rice (Oryza sativa) that is native to Africa and has been cultivated in West Africa for at least 1,500 years. It was first grown in West Africa around 3,000 years ago. Unlike the standard rice (Oryza sativa), which is native to Asia, African rice is more resilient to pests, diseases, droughts, and floods, has higher protein and fiber content, has lower glycemic index, has more antioxidants and phytochemicals, and has a nuttier flavor and a firmer texture.

Known for its distinct nutty flavor, generally, African rice has small grains that are pear-shaped and have a red bran and an olive-to-black seedcoat, straight panicles that are simply branched, and short, rounded ligules. It is a nutritious, gluten-free, and fast-growing cereal that can grow in dry and poor soils. It has a rich cultural and historical significance in Ghana, where it is used for various ceremonies and rituals.

Delicious bowl of African rice
Delicious bowl of African rice

The rice area stretches between Ho and Nkwanta and is grown mainly in the mountainous areas of Volta Region, between the Volta Lake and the Togolese border. According to a market brief by MoFA-IFPRI, rice production in Ghana reached 963,000 tons in 2019 (equivalent to 665,000 tons of milled rice). Since 2020 and with more Africans turning to their origins, African rice can easily be found on shelves of supermarket and fiercely competing with perfumed rice imported from Asia.

Ghana's Africa rice is considered a sacred grain by some ethnic groups. African rice has been listed as a priority crop for West Africa by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), due to its nutritional and environmental properties, as well as its potential to diversify one’s diet.

OTI White Fonio Grain
OTI White Fonio Grain

Fonio, also known as the hungry rice, is another type of millet that is native to West Africa and has been cultivated for thousands of years. Often sold as whole grains, flour or flakes, Fonio has the smallest grains (about 1-1.5 mm in diameter) and are usually white but can also be black or brown depending on the variety. Fonio grains have a pear-shaped or oval shape and a smooth or wrinkled surface. The grains look similar to sand or couscous when cooked. Fonio is a nutritious, gluten-free, and fast-growing cereal that can grow in dry and poor soils. It has a nutty flavor and a couscous-like texture. It can be used to make porridge, breads, cakes, pancakes, cookies, pasta, salads, soups, stews, or snacks.

The volume of fonio Ghana cultivates per year is not very clear and remains relatively small. This superfood grain is considered a staple food by many communities and its production is currently limited to some districts in the northern region, such as Yendi, Saboba, Chereponi, Zabzugu, and Tatale-Sanguli and mostly processed by the women in the community. The crop is mainly popular among the Dagomba, Anufo, Bassare, Kabre, and Konkomba peoples.

Fonio faces several challenges on the global market, and some of these challenges are:

  • Low production and productivity: Fonio yields are low compared to other cereals, due to factors such as lack of improved seeds, pests and diseases, poor agronomic practices and climate change. Fonio production is also seasonal and dependent on rainfall patterns. According to a research brief by Mbosso et al. (2018)1, the average yield of fonio in Cameroon was 0.8 tons per hectare in 2016, compared to 2.5 tons per hectare for maize and 3.5 tons per hectare for rice.

  • High post-harvest losses: Fonio grains are very small and difficult to process. They require intensive manual labour to remove the husk, sand and impurities. Traditional processing methods are time-consuming, inefficient and unhygienic. The same research brief1 reported that post-harvest losses of fonio ranged from 20% to 40% in Cameroon, due to inadequate processing equipment, drying facilities and storage conditions.

  • Low market demand and awareness: Fonio is not well known outside of West Africa and has a limited market share compared to other cereals. Fonio is mainly consumed locally or exported to niche markets such as ethnic shops, health food stores and restaurants. Fonio lacks standardisation, certification and branding that could enhance its quality and value on the global market. Fonio also faces competition from cheaper and more available cereals such as rice, wheat and maize.

Despite the many setbacks, Fonio has been gaining popularity outside Africa, especially among health-conscious consumers who are looking for gluten-free and nutrient-dense alternatives to other grains.

As it is the case of other lost crops, African rice and fonio are ancient grains that have been cultivated in West Africa for thousands of years. These crops are important for the reintegration of African food systems because they offer several advantages in terms of health, economic, and environmental aspects. - Esthy Ama Asante, CEO and Health of Business Development at Organic Trade and Investments (OTI).
OTI Organic Fonio Grain
OTI Organic Fonio Grain

Indeed, we identified some of these advantages, which included:

  • Health: African rice and fonio are nutritious and gluten-free grains that provide essential amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. They have a low glycemic index and can help prevent diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. They also have a distinct flavor and texture that can diversify diets and culinary traditions.

  • Economic: African rice and fonio can create income opportunities for smallholder farmers, especially women and youth, who are involved in their production and processing. They can also reduce dependence on imported cereals and enhance food security and sovereignty. They have a potential to access niche markets such as health food stores, restaurants, and ethnic shops.

  • Environmental: African rice and fonio are resilient crops that can grow in dry and poor soils without irrigation or fertilizers. They are fast-maturing and can be harvested before other grains, reducing the risk of crop failure. They also contribute to soil fertility and biodiversity by providing organic matter and hosting beneficial microorganisms.


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