Fonio, which is grown in West Africa, has long been seen as a marginal cereal due to its small grain size.
But it is now the object of renewed interest for its taste and nutritional properties, according to CIRAD (agricultural research for developing countries).
The EU-funded project, entitled FONIO, is designed to improve the competitiveness of the fonio commodity chain in West Africa. An initial workshop was held in Dakar from 16 to 30 June.
"Fonio could be a new cereal product for the European market," said project coordinator Jean-Franois Cruz.
"Boosting the productivity of the commodity chain on various levels is also crucial if the African market is to be developed."
Processors in Mali and Burkina have begun exporting fonio to Europe and the United States in sealed plastic bags, but the volumes involved are low. Partnerships have recently been established, in particular with France, to up the volumes marketed to several dozen tonnes per year, and organic and fair trade sectors are starting to develop.
But more work needs to be done. "The first step is to define quality criteria for precooked fonio, and determine consumer demand in Africa and Europe," said Cruz.
"As regards quality, sand in whitened fonio is still one of the main problems to be solved in order to produce quality fonio for sale in supermarkets and on the export market. Under a previous project, we were able to mechanise fonio hulling, which is both time-consuming and complex, is generally done by hand using a pestle and mortar, and slows processing operations considerably."
The new FONIO project should also enable the development of specific post-harvest machinery, and encourage the development of new high added-value products for export.
"Some supermarkets and export markets also sell precooked fonio, but it is not yet common," said Cruz. "This type of fonio is obviously more expensive, often costing twice as much as whitened fonio sold in bulk.
"We are also keen to produce 'parboiled fonio' and 'quick-cook fonio'. The parboiling process already used for rice could be applied and optimised for whitened fonio, to improve its nutritional quality, provided consumers are prepared to buy a parboiled product."
CIRAD is coordinating the project and is also the leader for WP1, which constitutes the heart of the project and under which technologists will be working on 'products and processes'.