Nigeria’s AgroEknor bets gluten-free fonio can become global mainstream health food

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa in 2023

By David Whitehouse

Posted on Friday, 27 January 2023 06:00, updated on Monday, 30 January 2023 15:00
Bowl of fonio grains (photo: twitter)

Fonio is the most famous health food that the West has never heard of. A Nigerian company is betting that the gluten-free grain can break through into the global mainstream.

AgroEknor, based in Nigeria’s Kano state, aims to start exporting fonio to affluent international markets in the US and China in the next two to three years, CEO Timi Oke tells The Africa Report. Currently, fonio is confined to specialist African food stores in the West. “We are going to make it mainstream, as accessible as rice or oats,” Oke says.

African countries may be well placed to meet niche demand for healthy foods which the Western food industry has been slow to address. The global gluten-free bakery market is expected to show a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.8% to reach $4.15bn by 2030, driven mainly by the incidence of celiac disease, according to Grand View Research.

The disease leads to damage of the intestine in genetically predisposed people when gluten is eaten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, about 1 in 100 people globally are affected by the disease. People with celiac disease double their greater risk of coronary artery disease, and the risk of small bowel cancers is four times higher than normal. The only known treatment for the disease is a strict gluten-free diet.

Cultivated in west African countries including Senegal, Ghana, and Mali as well as Nigeria, Fonio is also sometimes called ‘hungry rice’ or ‘hungry millet.’ It has the potential to become “one of the most important super foods”, defined as foods which have particular health benefits, Oke says.

According to Bioversity International, fonio growing can survive seasonal droughts even on poor-quality soils. It is eaten by about 4 million West Africans, taking three minutes to cook before being used as an alternative to bread, rice or couscous.

The company, which has signed up 320 fonio farmers as suppliers, is carrying out lab analysis to ensure that it can achieve international certification. “We want to meet the highest retail standards,” Oke says. The possibilities are to export fonio wholesale or in ready-to-consume form.  The latter is the option with the higher value-added which Oke wants to pursue.

Hibiscus growth

AgroEknor, which was founded in 2013, sources, processes, and exports hibiscus flowers and other cash crops such as ginger and cashews. The company started when Oke gave up a job with the Co-operative Bank in Stockport in the UK to try his hand as an entrepreneur.

He aims to help farmers in northern Nigeria upgrade their practices and increase yields. Shareholders include Aruwa Capital, which increased its stake in January. Oke and his co-founders retain majority ownership of the business.

Hibiscus is used for herbal teas and is also sold in powder and capsule form, with lower blood pressure among the claimed health benefits. The African Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (APEVCA) says that the global hibiscus market is forecast to grow 7.5% annually between 2021 and 2025 to reach $490m. Non-genetically modified hibiscus such as that supplied by AgroEknor will have a faster annual growth rate of 12.5%, APEVCA says.

AgroEknor currently exports 2,400 tons of hibiscus annually. Oke wants to raise that to 12,000 tonnes in the next two to three years. The company is currently building a fumigation chamber which will enable hibiscus exports to Mexico.

The company’s growth plans mean that it will need to keep raising money. A new funding round is due to start in March and will run until the end of the year.

AgroEknor will seek to raise between $8m and $11m and two private equity firms have shown confirmed interest, Oke concludes.

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