Pierre Thiam moved to the US from Senegal as a college student to get a degree in chemistry, but found himself becoming a restaurant chef instead, after putting in time washing dishes and studying Julia Child on the side. Pierre’s personal mission has always been to share the beauty of West African culinary culture with a wider world – to bridge the gap between the places he calls home. Through two restaurants and two ground-breaking and award-winning cookbooks, Pierre has explored and explained West Africa’s culinary traditions to an audience of people eager to learn.
That was personally gratifying, but Pierre still felt a need to pay it back to his homeland, his people, and his ancestors. He knew that bringing West Africa’s actual ingredients to the rest of the world was the key to broadening the audience for the cuisine and making a real impact back home. Fonio was the clear place to start. As a nutritious and quick-cooking, gluten-free ancient grain that goes with everything, fonio is perfectly suited for the way people eat today. And fonio thrives in the Sahel, an increasingly desperate region of the world whose residents rely on agriculture to survive, but whose poor soil and increasingly unreliable rainfall support very few crops.
So Pierre started Yolélé – roughly “Let the good times roll” in Fulani – as a purpose driven business. We are collaborating with NGO’s, government agencies, and entrepreneurs in West Africa to turn fonio from a subsistence crop into a cash crop. That means shaking up a system that benefits just a few today. We are recruiting smallholders to be part of a fair trade network, training them in best practices, and equipping them with tools to grow fonio far more productively, yielding cash in hand. To make that workable, and to satisfy the needs of the developed world, we are building the world’s first commercial scale fonio mill. The mill’s efficiency will reduce the cost of fonio in West Africa, which should increase the domestic market and make the region that much less reliant on imported food.
Fonio has 3x the protein, fiber, and iron as brown rice. It cooks in just 2 minutes (plus 3 minutes resting time). And as they say in West Africa, “Fonio never embarrasses the cook!” Use it just as you would rice or quinoa. From hot cereal to croquettes, from pilaf to fruit crisp, from hearty kale soup to a Buddha bowl, from salad to a scramble, fonio is fast, easy, and nutritious. Plus, when you eat fonio, you’re helping to make the world a better place.