Putting millets on the menu

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While the crop’s ingenuity has become clear, it now needs customers

For decades, the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has been working with farmers in Africa and India to develop crops that can stand drought and, climate-change to improve incomes. Now the Institute is all set to launch a campaign to connect with consumers and find a market for these produce.

The Smart Foods campaign will promote consumption of millets in India, Africa and Western countries. It addresses the biggest concerns of farmers who have been wary of cultivating traditional crops like finger millet (ragi ), sorghum ( jowar ) and pearl millet ( bajra) for the fear of not finding a market.

The institute will involve food processing firms, local groups and multinational companies in the campaign. The idea is to create products that are attractive and palatable. As Joanna Kane-Potaka of ICRISAT, who’s played a key role in designing the initiative, says, “The young would like to pick a packet of chips or flakes rather than have ragiporridge.” But as she points out, “Millets have high nutritional value and are resilient under extreme weather conditions.”

Some varieties of pearl millets can survive at temperatures of up to 64 degrees Celsius. The crop can be harvested within 60 days, as against 100-140 days for wheat. As against 2,100 mm water in a growing period for sugarcane and 1,250 mm for rice, millets require less than 500 mm water. Finger and pearl millets can be grown with 350 mm, while sorghum requires 400 mm water. Typically, the two major crops grown in arid, poor rainfall areas are groundnut and maize that require 450 mm and 500 mm water respectively.

However, as Kane-Potaka warns, global warming could render about 40 per cent of the land where they grow maize in sub-Saharan Africa not suitable for that crop by 2030. The situation could be same in India. “Millets survive better than maize in drought conditions,” she adds.

Meanwhile, the Hyderabad based Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR) – a body funded by Indian Council for Agricultural Research – has also made progress in breaking the ice with the consumers. It has come up with a brand called Eatrite that has ready-to-eat millet products in the form of flour and cookies, among others.

“The challenge is to make the market-ready products. Since we are doing research on newer varieties to take care of issues like drought, yields and diseases, we have also decided to make millets attractive for consumption,” says B Dayakar Rao, Principal Scientist and Principal Investigator (Millets Value Chain) at the ICAR institute. The institute has also developed machinery and standard procedures to develop the ready-to-cook products. With the new marketing mantra, millets are travelling faster from farm to fork.

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