Diversity, conservation and related wild species of Fonio millet (Digitaria spp.) in the northwest of Benin
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Fonio (Digitaria exilis (Kipp.) Stapf, white fonio; Digitaria iburua Stapf, black fonio), is one of the oldest native, but neglected, cereal crops of cultural, nutritional and economic importance of West Africa. To gather key information that will help to preserve its diversity in Benin and develop modern and well-adapted varieties that could meet both farmers’ and consumers’ needs, a participatory research appraisal survey was conducted in 15 villages randomly selected in the fonio production zone of Benin. Altogether 15 farmer-named landraces were recorded and further grouped into five morphotypes of which four belong to D. exilis and one to D. iburua. The number of landraces inventoried varied from one to five per village (three on average) and from one to three per household. Their distribution and extent are presented and their importance in terms of genetic resources conservation is discussed. Farmers’ preferences for fonio varieties were assessed and eight preference criteria (earliness, culinary characteristics, ease of processing, productivity, facility of harvesting, grains size, storability, and drought tolerance) were identified and prioritised according to the gender. The traditional seed supply system and on-farm seed maintenance were investigated. Two plant species (Digitaria horizontalis Willd. and Digitaria longiflora (Retz.) Pers.) were reported by farmers as putative parents of cultivated fonio. Of these, only Digitaria longiflora has interesting agronomic traits (erect habit; stem long, big, strong and resistant to lodging; panicle long and rich in grains; large sized seeds) that are useful for the improvement of cultivated fonio. In the entire study area, the crop is under threat. Therefore, concerted efforts should be deployed to preserve its diversity and increase its use to combat food insecurity and malnutrition in Benin.