Millets: Back to the future

A nutritious and essential food crop in semi-arid regions of Africa, millets have been overlooked by the agri-business sector. However, some interesting initiatives are beginning to emerge.

Millet returns to centre stage after being overlooked by the food industry © ICRAF/C Atia

Grown since prehistoric times, pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is a key hardy, drought-resilient and valued staple across southern Africa and the Sahel. Many farmers rely on basic hand tools to process the crop into edible flour. This is laborious and time consuming, particularly for women bearing the brunt of other household tasks. Nevertheless, pearl millet is highly valued for its essential minerals (including magnesium, potassium and zinc) and nutrient content (including B complex vitamins, folic acid and the amino acid, methionine). Pearl millet is the most widely grown of all millets; others grown in Africa include finger, proso and foxtail millet. To produce high-quality pearl millet flour in Senegal, Compatible Technology International (CTI) has been working to design and produce manually-operated threshers and grinders for use in over 1,000 farming communities and cooperatives, involving nearly 14,000 women farmers. The thresher allows 1 kg of grain to be processed in 3 minutes, less than half the time taken manually. Food waste is also significantly reduced as 90% of the grain is retained. Significantly, CTI has used women’s feedback in focus groups to redevelop the thresher, combining three parts into a single unit to better meet women’s needs. CTI is collaborating with Senegalese manufacturer, SISMAR, to reach more farmers regionally; manufacturing the equipment in West Africa would reduce the price by up to 35% and provide local employment. 

Market potential

In Namibia, pearl millet is the staple predominantly grown in the northern arid regions. Known as “mahangu”, the crop is made into porridge or fermented for a drink. Whilst there is a promising developing market for pearl millet in Namibia, the local value chain is constrained by farmers preferring to sell their crop only after a year, in case the subsequent crop fails. There are other issues; for instance the urban preference for fermented pearl millet is not cost-effective for many millers due to the additional drying required, explains Christof Brock, CEO of the Namibian Agronomic Board.

Around 600 subsistence farmers produce 1,000 t of pearl millet each year to sell to micro-millers. One larger (although still relatively small-scale) miller, Namib Mills Ltd., produces its own brand of pearl millet products in local supermarkets and operates collection centres for farmers to deliver their crop.

However, despite these developments, Brock states that 3,000 t of pearl millet has to be imported annually to meet national demand for millet products. In Tanzania, finger millet is used to make traditional beer as well as in livestock feed, industrial brewing and in a variety of processed food products, particularly for urban populations. A privately owned milling company, Nyirefami Ltd., has become the market leader for industrially processed millet flour, working with at least 400 smallholder farmers.

Traditionally, farmers save seed from their own harvest. And, whilst some farmers have bought threshing equipment and can get paid a higher price for their crop, others cannot afford the machines and so receive a reduced price due to the lower quality from manual threshing. To guarantee consistent high-quality supply, Nyirefami tried a contract farming approach where it supplied millet seeds and threshing equipment to farmers. Although this initiative failed, due to farmers selling to other buyers, the threshing machine is now operated by an agent. Farmers pay a commission for their millet to be threshed and receive a guaranteed higher price from the processing company.  

Susanna Cartmell-Thorp

Susanna Cartmell-Thorp

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.