According to a press release, African food brand Yolélé is on a mission to help improve smallholder value chains within the food industry. And the “revolutionary African food brand” has just secured $1.98 million in funding to help it do so. 

The move is a part of West African Ancient Grains (WAAG), a new venture located in Mali, and it plans to turn the ancient fonio grain into a cash crop and provide a source of income for farmers in one of the world’s most underserved and vulnerable areas, the Sahel region.

Based in the United States, Yolélé — launched by Chef Pierre Thiam — will partner with Mali’s leading shea butter manufacturer, Mali Shi SA, to carry out their goal of equipping West African smallholder farmers with the resources that they need to not only thrive but survive.

What is fonio?

As a drought-tolerant gluten-free nutritional powerhouse, Fonio can be used just like any other grain. Thanks to Yolélé, the United States has access to the ancient West African grain and will continue to expand internationally.

“Efficient processing has always been the missing link preventing farmers from earning livelihoods from fonio,” said Thiam in an official press release. “Fonio is easy for smallholders to grow, but turning it into food is hard! There is no fonio processing facility in the world that can meet the volume and quality requirements of large global food companies looking for feasible ways to meet their UN SDG’s. We devoted a lot of resources to find a technical solution to industrial-scale processing and a strong local partner at the source. West African Ancient Grains can deliver GFSI-compliant fonio, millet, and sorghum flour for flexible applications to major food manufacturers. That changes the landscape in terms of farm income and traceable impact at scale.”

Since 2017, Yolélé has done significant work to increase visibility for the crop through its use in products that have gained wide distribution throughout the nation thanks to partnering with ingredient importer and distributor Woodland Foods.

Supporting Farmers

A co-investment grant in the amount of $1.98 million has been funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), West Africa Trade & Investment Hub (Trade Hub) in partnership with Prosper Africa. 

The funds will allow WAAG to build a supply chain connecting smallholder farmers who are currently living in extreme poverty, with local and global markets created for “biodiverse, climate-resilient crops.”

“Providing multiple sources of income for the farmers in our growing network has a huge impact on family life and rural landscape,” said Simballa Sylla, the CEO of Mali Shi. “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 smallholders in the Sahel.

This co-investment partnership is the first in Mali for the Trade Hub.