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  • I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal,

  • and through a combination of accidents and cosmic justice,

  • became a chef in the US.

  • (Laughter)

  • When I first arrived in New York,

  • I began working in these restaurants -- different types of restaurants --

  • from French bistro to Italian,

  • global ethnic to modern American.

  • At the time,

  • New York was already well-established as a food capital of the world.

  • However ...

  • with the exception of a few West African and Ethiopian mom-and-pop eateries,

  • there was no such thing as African cuisine in the entire city.

  • Early in my life,

  • I was influenced by Senegal's first president,

  • opolddar Senghor,

  • nicknamed, "the poet president,"

  • who talked about a new humanism,

  • a universal civilization,

  • in which all cultures would come together around a communal table as equals,

  • each bringing its own beautiful contribution to share.

  • He called it "the rendezvous of giving and receiving."

  • That concept resonated with me,

  • and it has guided my career path.

  • After years of working in restaurants,

  • I yearned for my work to have a deeper impact

  • that would go beyond the last meal I had served.

  • I wanted to give back, both to New York --

  • the city that allowed me the opportunity to follow my calling --

  • but also to my origins and ancestors in Senegal.

  • I wanted to contribute to that universal civilization

  • Senghor had described.

  • But I didn't know how to make a measurable impact

  • as a cook and writer.

  • While I was writing my first cookbook,

  • I often traveled to different regions of Senegal for research.

  • During one of those trips,

  • in the remote, southeast region ofdougou

  • I rediscovered an ancient grain called fonio

  • that had all but disappeared from the urban Senegalese diet.

  • It turns out that fonio had been cultivated

  • for more than five thousand years

  • and is probably the oldest cultivated cereal in Africa.

  • Once a popular grain on much of the continent,

  • fonio was grown all the way to ancient Egypt,

  • where archaeologists found grains inside pyramids' burial grounds.

  • Today it is mostly cultivated in the western part of the Sahel region,

  • from Senegal to Mali,

  • Burkina Faso,

  • Togo, Nigeria.

  • The Sahel region is that semiarid area south of the Sahara desert

  • that extends from the Atlantic in the west to the Red Sea in the east.

  • I became more interested in this grain

  • that was deemed worth taking to the afterlife by early Egyptians.

  • As I continued my research,

  • I found out that fonio was actually --

  • wherever it was cultivated --

  • there was always some myth, or some superstition connected to it.

  • The Dogon,

  • another great culture in Mali,

  • called it "po,"

  • or, "the seed of the universe."

  • In that ancient culture's mythology,

  • the entire universe sprouted from a seed of fonio.

  • Aside from its purported mystical properties,

  • fonio is a miracle grain in many aspects.

  • It is nutritious,

  • particularly rich in methionine and cysteine,

  • two amino acids that are deficient in most other major grains:

  • barley, rice or wheat to name a few.

  • In addition,

  • fonio cultivation is great for the environment.

  • It tolerates poor soil

  • and needs very little water,

  • surviving where nothing else will grow.

  • As a chef,

  • what first struck me was its delicate taste and its versatility.

  • Similar to couscous,

  • fonio has a delicious, nutty and earthy flavor.

  • It can be turned into salad,

  • served as noodles,

  • used in baking

  • or simply as a substitute for any other grains in your favorite recipes.

  • I am happy to share some of my fonio sushi and sweet potato sushi

  • with some of you right now.

  • (Audience) Oh!

  • (Applause)

  • And okra.

  • (Audience murmurs)

  • Indougou

  • it is also nicknamedamu buur,"

  • which means "food for royalty,"

  • and it's served for guests of honor.

  • Located at the border with Guinea and Mali,

  • dougou first strikes visitors with its stunning vistas

  • and views of the Fouta Djallon Mountains.

  • Sadly, it is also one of the poorest regions of Senegal.

  • Because of desertification and lack of job prospects,

  • much ofdougou's young population has left.

  • They chose the deadly path of migration

  • in search of "better" opportunities.

  • Often,

  • they risk their lives trying to reach Europe.

  • Some leave by crossing the Sahara desert.

  • Others end up on inadequate wooden canoes

  • in desperate attempts to reach Spain.

  • According to a recent "Guardian" article,

  • by 2020 more that 60 million people from sub-Saharan Africa

  • are expected to migrate

  • due to desertification.

  • This is the biggest global wave of migration since the Second World War,

  • and it's only set to grow.

  • So far this year,

  • more that 2,100 migrants have lost their lives

  • on their way to Europe.

  • This is the reality ofdougou

  • and of much of the Sahel today.

  • Scary future,

  • scarce food

  • and no opportunities to change their situation.

  • If life in your village weren't so precarious,

  • if there was a way to having enough food to get by,

  • or having a paying job --

  • if you and your sisters

  • didn't have to spend 30 percent of their waking hours

  • fetching water,

  • if conditions were just a little more hospitable ...

  • could the solution be right here in our soil?

  • Could bringing fonio to the rest of the world

  • be the answer?

  • Ancient grains are getting more popular,

  • and sales of gluten-free items are growing in the US --

  • 16.4 percent since 2013,

  • making it a 23.3-billion-dollar industry.

  • How could fonio partake in this market share?

  • There are many challenges in turning fonio into food.

  • Traditional processing is laborious and time-consuming,

  • especially when compared to other grains.

  • Well, thankfully, technology has evolved.

  • And there are now machines

  • that can process fonio in a more efficient way.

  • And as a matter of fact,

  • a few years ago,

  • Sanoussi Diakité,

  • a Senegalese engineer,

  • won a Rolex prize

  • for his invention of the first mechanized fonio processor.

  • Today, such machines are making life much easier for producers

  • around the whole Sahel region.

  • Another challenge is the colonial mentality

  • that what comes from the west is best.

  • This tendency to look down on our own products

  • and to see crops like fonio as simply "country peoples' food,"

  • therefore substandard,

  • explains why even though we don't produce wheat in Senegal traditionally,

  • it is far easier to find baguettes or croissants in the streets of Dakar

  • than it is to find any fonio products.

  • This same mindset popularized the overprocessed, leftover rice debris

  • known as "broken rice,"

  • which was imported to Senegal from Indochina

  • and introduced by the colonial French.

  • Soon, broken rice became a key ingredient in our national dish,

  • thiéboudienne,

  • replacing our own traditional, more nutritious African rice,

  • Oryza glaberrima.

  • Ironically, the same African rice despised at home

  • was hailed abroad.

  • Indeed, during the Atlantic slave trade,

  • this rice became a major crop in the Americas ...

  • particularly in the Carolinas

  • where it was nicknamed, "Carolina gold."

  • But let's return to fonio.

  • How can we turn its current status of "country-people food"

  • into a world-class crop?

  • Last year,

  • a business partner and I secured a commitment from Whole Foods Market,

  • the US's largest natural food store chain,

  • to carry fonio.

  • And we got a large American ingredient importer

  • interested enough to send a team of executives

  • to West Africa with us

  • to explore the supply chain's viability.

  • We found ourselves observing manual operations

  • in remote locations

  • with few controls over quality.

  • So we started focusing on processing issues.

  • We drew up a vision

  • with a beneficial and commercially sustainable supply chain for fonio,

  • and we connected ourselves with organizations

  • that can help us achieve it.

  • Walking backwards from the market, here is what it looks like.

  • Imagine that fonio is consumed all across the globe

  • as other popular ancient grains.

  • Fonio touted on the levels of cereals,

  • breads,

  • nutrition bars,

  • cookies, pastas,

  • snacks -- why not?

  • It's easier to say than quinoa.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • To get there,

  • fonio needs to be readily available

  • at a consistent quality for commercial users,

  • such as food manufacturers and restaurant chains.

  • That's the part we're missing.

  • To make fonio available at a consistent quality

  • for commercial use,

  • you need a commercial-scale fonio mill

  • that adheres to international quality standards.

  • Currently, there is no such mill in the whole world,

  • so in our vision,

  • there is an African-owned and operated fonio mill

  • that processes efficiently

  • and in compliance with the requirements of multinational food companies.

  • It is very difficult for the fonio producers today

  • to sell and use fonio

  • unless they devote a huge amount of time and energy

  • in threshing, winnowing and husking it.

  • In our vision,

  • the mill will take on those tasks,

  • allowing the producers to focus on farming rather than processing.

  • There is untapped agricultural capacity in the Sahel,

  • and all it takes is changing market conditions

  • to activate that capacity.

  • By relieving fonio producers of manual operations,

  • the mill will free up their time

  • and remove the production bottleneck that limits their output.

  • And there are other benefits as well

  • in using Sahel land for agriculture.

  • More benefits,

  • higher employment,

  • climate change mitigation by reversing desertification

  • and greater food security.

  • Nice vision, right?

  • Well, we are working towards getting it done.

  • Last month we introduced fonio to shoppers in New York City

  • and online,

  • in a package that makes it attractive and desirable and accessible.

  • (Applause)

  • We are talking with operators and investors in West Africa

  • about building a fonio mill.

  • And most importantly,

  • we have teamed with an NGO called SOS SAHEL

  • to recruit, train and equip smallholders in the Sahel

  • to increase their fonio production.

  • Hunger levels are higher in sub-Saharan Africa

  • than any other place in the world.

  • The Sahel population is set to grow

  • from 135 million to 340 million people.

  • However, in that drought- and famine-prone region,

  • fonio grows freely.

  • This tiny grain may provide big answers,

  • reasserting its Dogon name,

  • "po," the seed of the universe,

  • and taking us one step closer

  • to the universal civilization.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal,