Case Study 14

SMALL MILLETS

A WOMEN-LED BIODIVERSITY REVOLUTION

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KOLLI HILLS

(how)

Small Millets

disappeared across

India

THEN FOUND THEIR WAY BACK

Written by Elena Valeriote
Photography and video by Alberto Miti
in collaboration with Dr. ED Israel Oliver King, MSSRF

MAP_MILLET

THE SUN HAS JUST BEGUN TO RISE as Mrs. Malarkodi walks down the main road of Semmedu, a small, but lively village in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She stops in front of a narrow shop wedged in amongst the other businesses that line the street and spill out onto the dusty sidewalk in bursts of color. The sound of honking horns and the aroma of fresh spices permeate the air, but Malarkodi hardly notices them as she unlocks and lifts the metal shutter, removes her shoes and passes under the mango leaves that hang over the entryway of the Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop as a symbol of good luck.

Malarkodi works here several days a week stocking the green shelves that occupy the walls of the narrow space and selling the neatly packaged products that line those shelves, each of them bearing the Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop label. She dutifully organizes the bags filled with typical Indian spice mixes that can be found on one side of the shop, but it is with great pride that she arranges the other packages, which contain eleven different varieties of flour mixes made with small millets.

For Malarkodi and many local women, life revolves around small millets, as it did for their mothers and grandmothers before them; however, while small millets once drained the energy of the women who farmed them, today they are a source of empowerment. 

In India, small millets and women have been pushed to the margins of society – quite literally – for thousands of years. Though small millets are one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world and have long been a part of traditional regional diets in India, over the later half of the twentieth century, Indian farmers increasingly opted to plant their land with crops such as rice, coffee, cassava and peppercorn that required less work and promised more money. Small millets came to be grown only along the borders of farmland.  

Even when farmed in meager patches of land, small millets depend on an enormous amount of physical labor. From planting the small millets all the way through to cooking them, this labor has always been relegated to women – so much so that small millets are known as the “women’s crop” in Tamil, the language spoken by the people of Tamil Nadu. Despite the fact that this work at times occupied nearly every minute of the day for these women farmers, small millets once nearly disappeared from the local landscape entirely.

Small millets are deeply ingrained in Indian culture, but they could not compete with the new and improved crop varieties that emerged during the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Around this time, geneticist Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan (who came to be known as the Father of the Green Revolution in India) encouraged Indian farmers to use high-yielding modern varieties of rice and wheat. While Swaminathan believed that these crops would help feed hungry and impoverished Indians, he also worried about potential consequences for both the land and the people who depend on it. Several decades after pioneering the movement towards widespread monocultural farming, Swaminathan founded the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in 1988 with the intention to restore traditional farming practices in India and protect its rich agrobiodiversity. 

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CONSERVATION

and

Cultivation

If it were not for Professor M.S. Swaminathan and Dr. Israel Oliver King, it is likely that there would be no Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop and no employment for Malarkodi other than the unrelentless and unpaid work of farming and processing her own small millets, in addition to feeding and caring for her family.

King arrived in Kolli Hills in 1997 as a partner of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. As an ethnobotanist, he specializes in understanding interactions between plants and people. His unique expertise led him to immediately recognize the irreplaceable cultural and nutritional value of small millets – as well as their value in the local economy and ecosystem – for a tribal group of people living in Tamil Nadu known as Malayali, who are primarily farmers living on the few hectares of land that they farm. Just as many small millet varieties were on the verge of being lost, King envisioned a way to protect them for the wellbeing of the local community and their local ecosystem.

Up until this time, farming in Kolli Hills had been a solitary kind of work. Local small millet seed varieties had survived solely because individual farmers had made the effort to save them for their personal use. King sought to change this. He encouraged the farmers of Kolli Hills to join together in Self Help Groups to manage and distribute money within the farming community, and also assisted with the formation of the Kolli Hills AgroBiodiversity Conservers Federation (KHABCoFED) to manage and distribute small millet seeds through fifteen newly-appointed Village Millet Resource Centers located across the region.

The Federation carefully selected twenty-one landraces belonging to five millet species (finger millet, little millet, foxtail millet, proso millet and kodo millet) based on specific criteria, such as crop yield, climate resilience and flavor. In this way, they could guarantee that a diverse array of small millets would survive and thrive, along with the Malayali people and their culture, even in the face of hardships brought on by changing weather patterns and evolving markets. Small millets, which can be grown on difficult terrain and even enrich the soil where they grow, are resilient by nature and enhance the resilience of the community around them.

Amongst the special small millet varieties chosen by the Federation is a kind of finger millet submitted by the Malarkodi family. For this reason, they are particularly proud to be amongst the Federation’s “Custodian Farmers,” who are engaged in saving, collecting, storing and sharing the seeds of the Federation.

The Centers also offer educational opportunities focused on small millets as a way of training the Custodian Farmers. This information draws on both traditional and modern practices and is an essential part of a holistic value chain approach based on the Federation’s concept of “the four C’s”: conservation, cultivation, commercialisation and consumption. 

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PreProcessing

and

Appropriate Technology

As a young girl, Malarkodi would wake up early each morning and head out to her mother’s small millet fields where the entire day would be devoted to one laborious, tedious task. The task would change according to the season, but the work was consistently difficult, demanding significant time and effort.

During the harvest season, hours would be spent manually collecting the small millets over the course of several days, taking care not to lose seeds from the delicate clusters. Then the grains would be threshed and dehusked to remove their hard outer layers, a process that required the use of a heavy pestle and mortar. Next came the cleaning and milling of the small millets. Even when the last of the grains had been ground into flour, there was always more work to do in the fields or in the kitchen.

Malarkodi was an adolescent around the time that the Federation was established. Up until that point, she had been destined to follow a path that mirrored generations of Indian women before her. Her days were to be occupied by farmwork and household chores, leaving her no time or energy to even consider the possibility of pursuing a profession outside the borders of her family’s land. Suddenly, however, a new path opened up for Malarkodi and countless other Malayali women.

With the support of the MSSRF, the Federation supplied Kolli Hills with machines that would complete much of the post-harvest processing of small millets. They also offered training to Malarkodi and other local women so that they could use these machines on their own. In this way, these women regained innumerable hours of time in their day-to-day lives and were able to pursue other opportunities that the Federation helped to create for their communities.

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VALUE CHAIN

and

Women

Today, Malarkodi is one of 537 Malayali women that have joined the Federation and now contribute to a growing market for small millets that reaches well beyond Kolli Hills.

When Malarkodi finishes grinding her small millets into flour at the processing center, she takes home a portion for her home kitchen, which she will later cook for her family. With the remaining flour, she heads to the nearby Millet Value Addition Center.

In addition to being trained to use the millet-milling machines, Malarkodi also participated in a course centered on techniques for adding value to millet-based products. At the Center, she plays a key role in the product development, quality control, packaging, labelling, and marketing of her products, which include single-ingredient small millet flours and ready-made small millet flour mixes that are especially appealing to Indian mothers who are in need of fast and healthy cooking options to feed their children. 

As an entrepreneur with in-depth knowledge of every aspect of her business’ value chain, Malarkodi is able to earn a livelihood for herself and her family while also upholding historic food and agricultural traditions for the benefit of her community at large. 

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NUTRITION

and

Identity

by Joanna Kane-Potaka, ICRISAT

India is witnessing a groundswell of support and endorsement to bring back ancient grains – small millets – into households. This movement has been from the ground up by clusters of people who had recognized the amazing value of millets as a Smart Food – good for you, the planet and the farmer.

It is exciting to see these efforts have reached the government who has taken unprecedented initiatives to support millets, including having had a national Year of Millets and leading the charge for a UN International Year of Millets. We still have a journey to travel to reach the mainstream consumer, however, I am inspired every day especially by the social entrepreneurs who are the pioneers changing perceptions and livelihoods. Whether it is a team in the slums of Delhi teaching about the nutrition of millets and how to cook them or the millet sisters who farm, process and run a millet restaurant, the yoga gurus and next-generation business models for holistic living, promoting healthier living with millets or even people developing new products like edible millet spoons, the creativity of these pioneers never cease to amaze me.

What is so powerful about the nutrition of millets? Let’s look at basic nutrition first. The top three micronutrient deficiencies in the world are those of iron, zinc and vitamin A. Most of the millets are very high in iron and zinc so targeting some of the biggest needs. You will be amazed to know that millets can give you the same amount of iron as chicken! For the nutrition experts – yes this does take bioavailability into account, and although the absorption of plant-based iron is less than that of meat-based iron, the iron levels are so high in millets, given the right millet and varieties, they can become your major source of iron and studies have shown it can reduce anemia.

The first scientific study about a school feeding program based on millets was released in December 2019. Chefs and a nutritionist designed healthy and tasty meals for adolescent children. The meals were provided to 1,500 students in 2 schools, and an equal number in a control group were continued with the standard meals of iron-fortified rice and sambar (a legume stew). Results were really exciting with 50% more growth of the children compared those in the control group, after just three months. A monthly sensory evaluation revealed that all the millet dishes on the menu were rated 4.5 or higher out of 5. We even did something really radical. We did not serve rice for three months and instead substituted it with little millet cooked like rice, which the kids loved.

Another recently published study analyzed the protein in millets. Legumes are the most commonly known plant-based source of protein and are particularly important in countries like India and also globally given the increasing number of vegetarian and vegan consumers. While legumes have good levels of protein, they do not have a complete protein as they are low in one essential amino acid – methionine. However, millets have 100% more of this amino acid; so when combined with legumes, they provide a complete, quality and highly digestible protein, as well as a nutri-basket of micronutrients. The typical staples of white rice, refined wheat and maize when combined with legumes, do not provide a complete protein. Millets fill this gap, underlining the need to bring them back as staples and into mainstream diets. Diabetes is a huge concern given its rising levels, and India is predicted to soon become the diabetic capital of the world. A key message of doctors in India to pre-diabetic or diabetic patients: is to reduce the intake of white rice and return to the traditional staple of millet.

Of all the millets, finger millet holds a special place. It has three times the amount of calcium as milk. Yes, 3 times! Which is why it used to be a weaning porridge for babies. Sadly, somewhere down the line we left behind these healthy food traditions, and the population is paying the price for it.

Preserving the traditional knowledge behind these healthy crops and food habits could easily fill its own Wikipedia. Recently a colleague was talking nostalgically about a particular variety of sorghum (classified as a major millet in India) that is grown only in the winter and one area of India, that makes a special roti (flatbread). The sorghum is stickier while kneading the flour and puffier when cooked, a brighter color and the texture and the taste superior. It’s known to last longer after cooking as well and eaten by farmers who go out into the field all day and need sustained energy. Only the locals know this and scientists and industry are still to realize the pearls of wisdom still to be tapped.

Millets can have a universal appeal as they fit all the biggest global health food trends. They are gluten-free, an ancient grain, a superfood, high in antioxidants, high in fiber, low glycaemic index, and good for losing weight. They are often hailed as the next quinoa. However, millets are likely to be much more than quinoa, grown across almost all continents and a true ‘Smart Food’. Not only are they a superfood but environmentally sustainable and climate-smart as well, befitting its description of being – good for you, good for the planet and good for the farmer.

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Building

Agrobiodiversity

Malarkodi once farmed small millets exclusively for her household, fulfilling the arduous work required at each link of a very short supply chain just to provide a supplementary food source for her family. Now, she plays an important role in a slightly extended value chain that enables her to feed her larger community and, in doing so, to improve both her own quality of life as well as the quality of life for those around her.

Small food businesses in the region and elsewhere in India have begun to see the value of small millets, which are beginning to appear on restaurant menus across the country. To keep up with the growing demand, Malarkodi divides her days between farming, processing, and selling her small millets at the Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop. A few times a week, a distributor visits the shop to pick up large orders for chefs and food-startups that have found inspiration in these versatile grains, using them in sweet treats, such as millet pudding with fragrant green cardamom, and savory sides like dosa with coconut chutney. 

As a result of the “Millet Revolution” – which is directly linked to the active role of the MSSRF and the farmers of the Federation in Kolli Hills – the production of small millets in the area has increased by twenty percent while farmers’ incomes have risen by twenty-five percent. 

Though once marginalized and undervalued in India, small millets and women farmers have finally been given the support they need to grow. Together, they have demonstrated their immense capacity to benefit the Malayali people and to serve as a model for healthier, more sustainable and more resilient regional food systems everywhere. 

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People

and

Resources

Joanna Kane-Potaka
ICRISAT

Dr. E.D. Israel Oliver King
MSSRF

Elena Valeriote
Writer and storyteller

Alberto Miti
Producer and Photographer

FURTHER READINGS

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About

REAWAKENED

SINCE THE 1900s, FARMERS WORLDWIDE have abandoned many traditional crops in favor of more genetically uniform, higher-yielding varieties. Today, over half the world’s plant-based nutrition comes from just 3 crops: corn, wheat, and rice. Our ecosystem biodiversity is threatened and people are malnourished. Can this trend toward the intensive production of select crops be reversed?

Yes.

While they may go by different names—neglected; underutilized; orphans; forgotten; minor; and even future smart foods—a shift has begun in global agriculture; crops discarded over the past half-century are now being reawakened. Farmers are learning that many of these undervalued crops have the power to combat hunger, better respond to climate change, promote biodiversity, provide women with livelihoods, and support healthier and more secure food systems.

To share this story, the Lexicon formed the REAWAKENED FOOD INITIATIVE (RFI) with support from dozens of companies, government agencies and NGOs. Their skills range from providing research, crop science and plant breeding support (Crops for the Future and Bioversity International), safeguarding against crop erosion by building and promoting seed banks and sound conservation practices to ensure biodiversity (Crop Trust and Food Forever), sharing cultural and culinary knowledge (Culinary Institute of America and Slow Food), and organizing farming communities and family farms around the globe (GFAR).

REAWAKENED provides the opportunity to align these initiatives along common themes, and to build a vibrant coalition that leverages each partner’s individual skills and networks to bring greater visibility to the promise of these crops while providing farmers with the tools and expertise to increase biodiversity and food sovereignty in their communities.

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