MALI – Yolélé, a purpose-driven African food company based in the United States has partnered with Mali Shi, a Malian agro-processor to form a new venture dubbed Sustainable African Foods (SAF), aimed to turn one of the country’s native crops fonio into cash crop.

SAF is backed with a US$1.9 million co-investment grant from Prosper Africa through USAID’s West Africa Trade & Investment Hub (Trade Hub).

As part of the investment, Yolélé/Mali Shi will leverage an additional US$11.6 million from private sources to ensure SAF’s success and organize a fonio supply chain that meets international best practices.

Fonio is a West African staple grain packed with numerous nutrients and health benefits. It is naturally gluten free, high in B vitamins, and low in cholesterol, sodium, and fat.

In addition, its low glycemic index makes it an appropriate carbohydrate for people living with diabetes, a growing population in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

Nevertheless, fonio is considered a neglected and underutilized crop species.

The Trade Hub’s partnership and project with Mali Shi and Yolélé seeks to change the narrative by establishing a new West African global value chain for fonio, with Mali, the eighth largest country in Africa, as the epicenter with a processing hub.

The project aims to establish the United States as the #1 market for fonio and result in 2,400 metric tons per year of new exports by the end of the 2.5-year project, with a value of more than US$5 million.

The project will also create 13,714 agricultural jobs in Mali, and $4.5 million in collective smallholder sales in the next 2 years.

The parties will build a supply chain that traceably connects smallholder farmers living in extreme poverty with local and global markets for biodiverse, climate-resilient crops through efficient processing.

Yolélé to continue promoting fonio abroad

“The market potential for fonio and related products remains largely untapped in the United States.

“Fonio falls within the latest positive trends of superfoods, ancient/heritage grains, and gluten-free products,” said chef and cookbook author Pierre Thiam, co-founder of Yolélé.

“Beyond its nutritional and culinary benefits, it cooks in just five minutes! Fonio also yields significant opportunities to generate jobs and income in West Africa, particularly amongst women,” he added.

Since 2017, Yolélé has been sharing the ancient West African grain in the United States and is now expanding internationally.

The partnership also seeks to establish direct linkages to U.S. commercial markets for fonio products, including Whole Foods Markets.

The project will include U.S. market development and promotion, supply chain development, and the establishment of a new processing center, West African Ancient Grains.

“One of the most positive impacts of this project is providing multiple sources of income for the farmers in our growing network, which already counts more than 23 000 shea collectors/farmers.

“It makes financial sense for farmers to engage in sustainable, biodiverse, multi-crop rotations only if they have customers for their harvests.

“West African Ancient Grains is that customer, an element that has been missing for smallholder in the Sahel,” said Simballa Sylla, the CEO of Mali Shi.

The Trade Hub’s co-investment partnership with Mali Shi and Yolélé marks its first in Mali.

However, it is its second investment in the fonio value chain as in October the hub granted Guinea food processing and packaging company, La Petite Damba, with US$258,000 co-investment grant.

“Mali is ripe with opportunities to support economic growth through private investment, create long-term jobs for smallholder farmers, and increase exports of products such as fonio to the United States.

“I expect our project with Mali Shi/ Yolélé will prove this and encourage more investment into Mali’s high-potential businesses,” said Frantz Tavares, Public Private Partnership Manager for the Trade Hub.

The success of the project will be key to Yolélé earning US$10 million in sales by the end of the project, driven by expanded distribution for its snacks as well as other fonio-based products in retail, foodservice, and industrial channels.

At the conclusion of the project, Mali Shi/ Yolélé’s partnering smallholder farmers will be earning a sustainable income from fonio sales to supplement their other farming activities, increasing the family’s cash income by an estimated 85 percent and their overall income by 32 percent.

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