In the early 1990s, Sanoussi Diakité found a way to make fonio viable. He invented a machine that removes the husks in a fraction of the time taken by hand.
Diakité, who lives in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, recalls the first time, in 1993, that he took his invention to his native town of Kolba in southeast Senegal for its initial field test: “It was a special moment when I saw that the people approved, but I said nothing.” Since then, the machine has undergone other extensive field trials and is now being manufactured in Dakar. “More than 20 [machines] are now operating in seven West African countries,” says Diakité, who is seeking financing to set up a factory for large-scale production of the device.
Delicious but Difficult
Fonio is native to the Sahel, the region south of the Sahara, where it has been cultivated for more than 500 years. A hardy cereal that tolerates poor soils and little rain, it can produce up to three crops a year. But fonio, once a common dish, is now reserved for special occasions because of the tedious job of preparing it by hand. “Fonio is extremely prized,” says Diakité, “but people are more and more reluctant to prepare it.” He remembers the difficulties he had preparing fonio as a child, an experience that inspired him to seek an easier method: “It was extremely painful on the arms. It was real torture, and I never forgot it. I decided that a machine needed to be invented.”
Fonio is also a potential source of foreign currency for West Africa. In Europe it is highly sought after by West African immigrants, while in Africa the cereal is appreciated by foreign visitors. Diakité recalls a Canadian visitor who told him that “North America would go crazy for fonio”.
Building an Effective Solution
At present the machines are manufactured in Dakar’s Lycée technique industriel Maurice Delafosse, the high school where Diakité teaches and developed the device in his spare time. “The secret of the machine,” says Diakité, “is the flexible plates that remove the husk.”
The machine uses supple plastic plates that rotate over the grains, rubbing off the husk without crushing the soft interior. “After the field tests, we improved the performance,” Diakité explains. The machine now processes five kilos in eight to 10 minutes. A recent study found that the machine removes the husk from 99.1 per cent of the grains.
The machine sells for €1,200 with an electric motor, and for €1,750 with an engine run on petrol and oil. A feasibility study on setting up a factory has been completed, and Diakité has teamed up with the Senegalese Agency for Technological Innovation (ASIT) to raise the €534,000 necessary for the venture. “ASIT’s director hopes to open the factory in December 2003,” says Diakité.
Diakité’s 1996 Rolex Award for his invention helped spread knowledge of the machine. “The machine is now well established in Africa,” he says, “and I am developing partnerships with clients.” He can, if necessary, travel to neighbouring countries such as Mali and Guinea if a problem with the machine cannot be solved over the telephone. “This also allows me to see if people are satisfied with the machine, and how it is working in different countries,” Diakité says. Gambia’s president recently bought two machines after officiating at the Gambia launch of Diakité’s invention on a local farm.
In regions where the machines are in use, farmers are planting more of the cereal. “The machine is an instrument to encourage fonio-planting,” reports Diakité. “Wherever it is used, people start to plant fonio again.” In Kolda, for example, cultivation of fonio increased by 15 per cent in the year following the arrival of the first machine. Some businesses producing husked fonio have increased their annual output twentyfold, thanks to Diakité’s invention.
The success of Diakité’s machine has instilled confidence in his pupils at the high school, which he describes as a triumph over “Afro-pessimism”. “Invention can seem so far removed from everyday life,” says Diakité, “but they can talk to me and touch me, and they know that if I can do it, then so can they.”
Published in 2002