BROOKLYN, NY. — West African food brand Yolélé has received $1.98 million in funding for its new venture, West African Ancient Grains.

Yolélé has partnered with shea butter processor Mali Shi SA to build a traceable supply chain for fonio, a drought-tolerant, nutrient-dense ancient grain that is considered a neglected and underutilized crop. The aim of the project is to turn fonio into a cash crop that will provide a source of income for thousands of smallholder farmers in the vulnerable Sahel region of Mali.

The co-investment grant is funded by the US Agency for International Development West Africa Trade & Investment Hub through Prosper Africa and supports US market development and promotion, supply chain development and the establishment of a new processing center in Mali.

Fonio is central to Yolélé’s product development. The chef-led startup offers a line of ready-to-cook fonio pilaf and fonio chips that are available at more than 2,000 grocery stores nationwide, including Whole Foods Market and Target stores. Yolélé partners with Woodland Foods, a specialty food company that specializes in global sourcing, custom blending and processing.

West African Ancient Grains is expected to create 13,714 agricultural jobs in Mali and deliver $4.5 million in collective smallholder sales in the next two years, according to the company. The implementation of value chain improvements is projected to increase cash income for families in its grower network by an estimated 85%.

“Efficient processing has always been the missing link preventing farmers from earning livelihoods from fonio,” said Pierre Thiam, co-founder of Yolélé. “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 (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals). 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.”

Mali Shi operates an industrial-scale manufacturing facility for shea butter in Mali and has a network of more than 23,000 West African smallholder farmers, who are mostly women.

“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, chief executive officer 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.”