Millets, Sorghum, and Grain Legumes: the Smart Foods of the Future

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The Smart Food Project is hoping to popularize nutrient-rich, drought-tolerant crops in an effort to diversify diets and ensure global food security. An initiative by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the Smart Food Project is promoting the consumption of sorghum, millets, and grain legumes like chickpea, pigeon pea, green gram, and groundnut as micronutrient-dense, plant-based sources of protein.

Recently, the Smart Food Project filmed a reality TV show that brought amateur Kenyan chefs together to compete and cook with Smart Foods to win a culinary scholarship to the Strathmore Professional Culinary Program. Watch the first episode of the Smart Food Show here.

Food Tank interviewed Joanna Kane-Potaka, ICRISAT Director of Strategic Marketing and Communication, about Smart Food’s work to change what the world eats.

Food Tank (FT): How does the Smart Food Project approach differ from the work of other organizations working to address food security issues?

Joanna Kane-Potaka (JK): For decades, and still now, the investors in food security are devoting the majority of investments in the Big 3—rice, wheat, and maize. Whether through policy support, research, product development, or development aid—the majority is invested in these crops. The reason this is a problem is that we know we need more diversity in diets and on-farm. What we have created is a Food System Divide. As with other divides, like the digital divide and education divide, the more one is advantaged they are able to develop faster and so are even more advantaged. So the spiral continues, and it becomes more difficult to break this cycle.

So our aim is not just to popularize some more foods but to break the divide and mainstream some other foods back as staples in developing countries. Rather than the Big 3, we need to create the Big 5, and later the Big 7, and so on. But we need to select carefully which foods we focus on to mainstream. This is where Smart Food is important. Smart Food is defined as food that is good for you, so highly nutritious, good for the planet, and good for the farmer. We need to mainstream Smart Food. Achieving this will be what is needed to make a major impact on food security and some of the biggest global issues in unison—malnutrition, poverty, and environmental issues.

FT: Why does Smart Food believe that the food industry should invest more in the research and marketing of millets, sorghum, and grain legumes?

JK: A major challenge we have with these foods is the image and lack of development of the value chain. Millets and sorghum, which were the traditional crops across many parts of Africa and India, are now seen as old fashioned or food for the poor. In Mali, I visited an international NGO who was providing a mid-day meal for school children. They provided a millet meal since this is very nutritious and grown locally. However, the children, even the parents, reacted strongly saying they wanted rice. This was because rice had become the modern food in the urban areas and now was influencing eating habits in rural areas. The NGO was in a difficult position because they didn’t want the only meal a day they provided to be the least nutritious meal.

There has been much less investment in these foods. The value chain is less developed, from the seed system being set up through to modern convenience products being developed.

I visited a dry area in eastern Kenya currently growing maize that I was told survives just one in four years. Because it is a dry area it is not as suitable for maize. When asked why they grow maize and not a more drought resilient crop, the farmers said, ‘Well it is just easier. Someone comes to the farm gate and sells the seed and the input. Someone comes to the farm gate and buys the grain.’ Maize has a well-developed value chain, well supported and set up. This area used to grow millets including sorghum that are hardy crops surviving with little water. When there were difficult economic times nationally, the government gave maize as free food aid. People became used to eating maize and started to grow it as well. A couple of generations have passed, and people now do not know how to cook sorghum or millets or even what it tastes like.

Unless we also ensure the development of the whole value chain from seed to markets, we will not make it viable for the farmers to return to traditional crops like millets and sorghum. ICRISAT and Africa Harvest have a project here working with the rural communities, not just growing the sorghum and millets but also helping develop the value chain from seed supplies being made available through to with creating bakery agribusinesses with the women. Even cooking classes are being held so families know how to cook with the sorghum and millets—which is quite easy as the same recipes can be made by substituting the maize for sorghum or millets or using a combination.

We even have Smart Food Ambassadors on the ground now in Kenya thanks to support from the USAID Feed the Future Program. There is a real buzz being created around rural cooking displays and competitions with Smart Food and we are bringing in nutritional information about these Smart Food crops through the health workers that are already on the ground but previously did not talk about the value of the traditional foods. It is showing a lot of success in bringing back traditional, drought tolerant crops to have a more diverse diet. See a newly released video on this.

FT: Describe the Smart Food Project reality TV show. How did it come about, and what response have you seen since its launch last month?

JK: To attract people back to these highly nutritious traditional foods, we needed to not only build awareness but also create a whole new buzz and positive image around them. This meant we needed to be very creative with the marketing of these foods. We also did not have a large budget, so we needed to be innovative and not follow a traditional mass media campaign.

We are engaging some great new methods to bring attention back to these foods, and a reality TV cooking show is one of these. USAID Feed the Future has made this possible in Kenya. By funding the first season, we can show the success of this approach and from then on it will be self-sustaining. What we plan to do is run these in a number of countries and eventually bring the winners together in an amazing fusion of Smart Foods.

FT: Smart Food aims to mainstream smart foods by combining the efforts of food retail and catering industries, development agencies, the health industry, advertisers, governments, and NGOs – how is this accomplished and what can consumers do to help?

JK: Smart Food will only be successful if we can ensure the whole value chain is developed—it will only be as strong as the weakest link. This does make it a bigger task to achieve, but this is possible with a wide partnership. We see ourselves as the catalyst. Others have understood the critical need and are inspired by the vision. We still have many steps and no doubt hurdles ahead, but with the support and commitment, we are excited with what lies ahead.

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