Humble millet is getting a shot in the arm

Due to challenges such as lack of food security and climate change, global attention has turned towards millet. Let’s get to know why this is so


The humble millet, which was once relegated to regional cuisines, has finally come into prominence. You might be hearing a lot more about this super food in the news than ever before.

Two years ago, the UN General Assembly at its 75th session in March 2021 declared 2023 the International Year of the Millet. At the opening ceremony on 6th Dec 2022, PM Modi said, “Millet is good for the consumer, the cultivator and the climate.”

Following that, millet was given a high priority in the Union Budget. The FM referred to millet as ‘Shree Anna’ and announced that the government will promote the Indian Institute of Millet Research-Hyderabad as a Centre of Excellence for sharing best practices, research and technologies at the international level.

“The emphasis has been there, but yes it has increased significantly of late, particularly after the UN declared 2023 as the International Year of the Millet. The Indian Government is also aggressively promoting it. That’s why I think that the focus on millet has reached a peak. I reckon that the focus on millet has been building up for a couple of years now,” says Arun Nagpal, Co-founder & Managing Director, Mrida Group.

But what is the reason behind this sudden emphasis on millet?


Millet in the limelight

Experts assert that there are several reasons behind it.

First, there are the health reasons. Today about 80 per cent Indians suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, according to the Consumer Health Division of Bayer. Rice and wheat are calorie rich, but millet can be a game changer.

It is highly nutritious, gluten-free, and has a low glycaemic index, making it the ideal food option for people with various health conditions.

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According to APEDAs report, coarse cereals contain a higher amount of proteins and minerals, viz, calcium, iron etc. Therefore, increasing the awareness regarding the health benefits associated with millet consumption will boost industry growth by 2025.

Various agencies such as ICRISAT are already promoting it as a ‘Smart Food’. “This is a multilateral agency that works across several countries and has been promoting millet for the last couple of years. They have an intensive programme called ‘Smart Foods’ to promote millet, as it is good for the planet, for the farmers and for you as well,” says Nagpal.

Mascot of sustainability

At a time, when everyone is appreciating sustainability, millet can be the flag bearer for sustainability. More importantly, it can withstand climate change, points out Aneesh Jain, Founder, Gram Unnati.

“Millet is adaptable to climate change. It can withstand a wide range of temperatures and moisture conditions and requires less maintenance to develop. This hardy crop has a smaller water and carbon footprint,” he asserts.

The small-seeded grasses of millet have short growth cycles (70–100 days compared to 115–150 days for rice and wheat), lower water needs (350–500 mm vs. 600–1,250 mm), and the capacity to thrive in challenging environments like mountainous terrain and poor soils, he adds.

Millets are drought-resistant and can grow in harsh conditions, making them an excellent crop for the farmers in the arid regions.

Inexpensive crop

Another reason is that millet is relatively cheap to grow, making it a viable food source for low-income households. Its cultivators save money on inputs as the crop requires a lesser amount of water and fertilisers than the other crops. Also, millet is often grown using traditional farming practices, which are low-cost and do not require expensive machinery.

Furthermore, hardy crops do not require extensive processing before they can be consumed. That’s why promoting them makes sense, says Jain.

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“Millet is a dual-purpose crop. It is grown for both food and fodder, ensuring the food and livelihood security of millions of households and contributing towards boosting the profitability of farming. It makes strong economic sense in mixed farming systems,” he points out.

To boost agro-biodiversity

By introducing Shree Anna, the government is encouraging farmers to grow millet. This will diversify their crops, which in turn can help reduce their reliance on a few staple crops and make them less vulnerable to market fluctuations. This can increase the farmers’ incomes and boost their livelihoods, while also providing a consistent source of food for communities.

“It also increases agro-biodiversity owing to the wide range of its cultivators and facilitates the opportunities for mutually beneficial intercropping with other major crops. Overall, millet is significant because of its enormous potential to support livelihoods, boost farmer income, and guarantee global food and nutritional security. Boosting millet cultivation will not only help in crop diversification but will also help in diversifying the rural markets that are primarily driven by wheat & rice,” Jain comments.

It will be profitable for MSMEs

Despite having so many beneficial properties, in India, millet is somehow (that’s another story) regarded as the poor man’s food till now. People have always considered rice and wheat as the foods of the rich. So, ironically, they have actually moved away from healthy food. However, nowadays, it is trending again as a super food. The market is also seeing as an opportunity the fact that consumers are going back to traditional healthy grains, which was not the case earlier.

APEDA recently signed a MoU with Lulu Hypermarket to capitalise on the export potential of millet to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The mall chain will handle the promotional activities, display the millet and other value-added products, and RTE the products in international retail chains, by sourcing them from Farmer Producer Organisations, Farmer Producer Companies, women entrepreneurs, and start-ups.

The Mrida Group, which has already been promoting millet since the last eight years to uplift the agricultural economy, sees millet as a new market opening for India. “I see a huge opportunity for the small and marginal farmers in India and for the Indian economy and the Indian government on a global platform as well,” Nagpal says.

Quinoa, which is native to the Andean region of South America, became a well-known worldwide name in a similar fashion, he adds. So far, quinoa farming has positively impacted the economies of the countries of its origin. “So that is something that we can draw a lot of positive optimism from,” he avers.

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According to him, the promotion of millet is going to open new markets for us in the Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary, Bosnia, Romania, etc. Our exports are going to skyrocket as well.


Its versatile

Millet is pretty versatile as well—it can be ground into flour for baking or can be used as animal feed.

Agripreneurs and other stakeholders are looking at it as another opportunity for experimenting and innovating.

When it comes to versatility, Nagpal tells us how Mrida experimented with making millet eatables and launched their brand Earthspired. “We started this brand with the intention of helping farmers. We worked on a variety of millet and amaranth-based products, including gluten-free, high-protein and multi-grain millet flours. Then we moved up the value chain and created a line of gluten-free millet and amaranth-based cookies, followed by millet upma, millet khichdi, and ready-to-eat snacks,” he says.

Numerous other food start-ups are leveraging millets’ benefits to create products that meet the growing demand for healthier and more environmentally friendly food options.

Nutrition Dynamic Food (NDF), for example, creates millet-based snacks like khakhra, pasta, cookies, ready-to-eat meals, and other convenient food products, making it easier for consumers to incorporate millet into their diets.

“Start-ups like us can help boost demand and innovation in the millet industry. We were one of the first start-ups in the space before the hype about millet in India began,” says Arpita Doshi, CEO & Founder of Nutrition Dynamic Food (NDF).

She feels that by promoting the benefits of millet and by creating innovative products with it, start-ups can help boost the demand for millet and create a more sustainable and healthier food ecosystem in India. “However, the new brands that are entering the millet space also need to invest in R&D to improve the taste, texture, and nutritional value of millet-based products, making them more appealing to a wider audience,” she adds.

In the coming days, the company plans to introduce new millet-based products, making millet more accessible to their consumers.

Development of the packaging and processing value chain

With so many benefits, millet has become a desirable ingredient for health-conscious consumers. “The increased demand for millet will definitely help in incentivising the development of various small-scale as well as large-scale processing and packaging industries,” says Jain of Gram Unnati.

He asserts that the packaging and processing units will need to adapt to meet the SOPs. Which may involve investments in new equipment, packaging materials, and quality control measures.

“Millet processing is done at various levels. The primary processing is mainly the post-harvest processing, sorting, grading & packaging of different types of millet. The secondary processing converts the millet into pasta, poha, noodles and vermicelli, which requires a different type of packaging and machinery. It will also attract different market players, from the smaller ones to the bigger companies,” he explains.

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Then come the value added/RTE products such as namkeen, biscuits, khakhra, cookies etc. This can be done at the level of the local cottage industry as well as on a more organised commercial scale. Furthermore, local markets can be created through training and equipping farmer groups and SHGs to make and sell/supply ready-to-eat products to local schools, aanganawadi centres, rural haats, etc., he adds.

In terms of packaging, millet is typically sold in large quantities or in small packages. As the demand for millet grows, there may be a greater demand for larger packages or for more environmentally friendly packaging options, such as reusable containers or biodegradable packaging materials. To meet the increased demand, more efficient and automated packaging equipment may be required.

So now we can all see why the government along with the agriculture sector is promoting millet so much.

However, the current impetus on millet is going to change the price game.

Impact on prices

“Yes definitely, the end product price is going to rise,” says Nagpal. “With more emphasis on millet, the demand for it will rise. This will start the diversification of crops and the competition will heat up,” he adds.

Doshi of NDF also feels the same, saying, “It is possible that millet-based products could be more expensive than the raw material, as the cost of processing, packaging, marketing, and distribution can add additional costs to the product.”

Prices generally rise or fall in response to commodity prices. However, when you switch from millet as a commodity to multi grain millets, you are formulating it. It is now an intellectual capital. When developing formulations and producing different products, you take them to an entirely new level.

Take the example of the millet cookie. You take the flour, make a cookie mix out of it, and make millet-based cookies. Now, you’re looking at not just the millet market but at the cookie market as well, which is massive and worth billions of dollars globally.

In addition, the availability and demand for millet-based products could also affect their price.

“If there is a high demand for these products and a limited supply, then the price could be higher. On the other hand, if there is an abundance of millet available and a low demand for millet-based products, then the price may be lower,” Doshi weighs in.

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It’s also important to note that the price of millet-based products may vary depending on the specific product and the brand. Some brands may offer more affordable options, while others may charge more for premium or specialised products.

Will there be hiccups along the way?

According to market leaders, the main goal of Shree Anna and the other millet initiatives is to boost the millet economy, improve the health conditions, and promote the growth of small and medium farmers. With this intent, a new market will undoubtedly emerge, but there will also be challenges.

Nagpal asserts that in the long run, the intent can lose focus, which will be a challenge. “My concern are the small and marginal farmers which form 80 per cent of the farming community in India. With the focus on numbers, they should not be left behind in this entire development process. This is the first challenge,” he opines.

The second challenge is to strictly maintain the quality of the millet products.

“With the growing popularity of millet, adulteration and people not adhering to norms, whether they be environmental or food safety-related, are some of the challenges that can surface,” Nagpal adds.

According to him, those are the two critical things that require some level of regulation to ensure that the benefits of millet are protected. Secondly, the unscrupulous elements in the value chain should not be allowed to benefit in any form. “The benefits should actually accrue to the consumer on one end and to the producer and value generation intermediaries on the other, ensuring that the focus remains on the small and marginal farmer,” he asserts.

To sum it up, millet farming is advantageous for India

It is the right time for the agri-sector to take the lead on an initiative like this. But to make the best of this opportunity, a few factors require strong focus. Firstly, millet should be promoted on a multilateral or global scale; for which a holistic approach is essential. Secondly, rather than seeing millet as a commodity; we should look at it as a value-added product. Thirdly, we should not lose sight of the various elements of the value chain.

“We must constantly differentiate the product by ensuring value addition in its processing, packaging, and so on,” says Nagpal.

“The continuous development of promising products will eventually result in a more sustainable profile,” adds Doshi.

All of this becomes a part of the larger initiative. It is one thing to promote the International Year of the Millet, but in order to have a strong policy framework, we must ensure that its execution happens throughout the value chain.

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