Digitaria exilis (PROSEA)

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Plant Resources of South-East Asia
List of species

Digitaria exilis (Kippist) Stapf

Family: Gramineae


  • Paspalum exile Kippist,
  • Syntherisma exilis (Kippist) Newbold.

Vernacular names

  • Fonio (millet), fundi, hungry rice (En)
  • Fonio (Fr).


Fonio millet is only known from cultivation and is grown throughout West Africa from upper Senegal to Lake Chad, decreasing in importance as a cereal from west to east; it is a staple crop in parts of Guinea and Nigeria. It is one of the oldest known cereals of Africa (known from 5000 BC) and has its greatest diversity in the upper basin of the river Niger.


The very small grains have an attractive flavour and are used to make porridge or, ground to flour, often mixed with the meal of other cereals to make bread and other baked food. It is also used for brewing beer. The straw is used as forage.


  • Erect, free-tillering annual grass, about 45 cm tall.
  • Leaves linear to lanceolate, glabrous, up to 15 cm long.
  • Inflorescence a terminal digitate panicle of 2-4 slender sessile racemes, up to 15 cm long; spikelet long ellipsoid, 2 mm long, acute, glabrous, pale green, with a sterile lower floret and a bisexual fertile upper one.
  • Caryopsis very small, usually yellow, about 2000 per g.

It can grow on poor, shallow soils, in areas with more than 400 mm average annual rainfall. Based on inflorescence morphology 5 cultivar groups can be distinguished (Densa, Gracilis, Mixta, Rustica and Stricta). Cultivars also differ in growing period, which varies from 3-4 months. The crop is usually grown solely, sometimes mixed with sorghum or pearl millet. Weeding is seldom necessary as the crop is grown very densely. Birds cause serious losses. The crop is harvested manually with a sickle; the cut plants are tied into sheaves, dried and stored. Threshing is by trampling or beating and hulling is done in a mortar. Average yield varies with cultivar and environmental conditions from (150-)600-800(-over 1000) kg/ha. Per 100 g edible portion the grain contains approximately: water 6 g, protein 8.7 g, fat 1.1 g, carbohydrates 81 g, fibre 1.1 g and ash 2.1 g.

Germplasm collections of Digitaria species are available in Australia (CSIRO), Ethiopia (ILCA), Colombia (CIAT) and France (ORSTOM). So far D. exilis has been largely neglected in scientific research and breeding programmes.

D. longiflora (Retzius) Persoon, widely distributed in the tropics and subtropics of the Old World, including South-East Asia, used to be considered as the possible ancestor of D. exilis, but this view has been abandoned. The grain of D. longiflora, however, is sometimes used as a famine food; it is a pioneer on moist sandy to rocky soils. D. iburua Stapf greatly resembles D. exilis and is cultivated as a cereal in the Haussa region of northern Nigeria and in the Atakora mountains in Togo and Benin. It is called black fonio because of its dark brown spikelets, but its grain is white.

Selected sources

6, 13, 14, 16, 20, 24, 26, 27, 28, 34, 36.


  • H.N. van der Hoek & P.C.M. Jansen