The United Nations has declared 2023 as the International Year of the Millet.
Millet provides a nutritious and affordable addition to the diet of people living in Africa, and can provide food security, especially in the light of climate change. Millet farming can play an important role by empowering smallholder farmers to achieve sustainable development, eliminate hunger, adapt to climate change, and promote biodiversity in Africa.
What is millet?
The millet plant produces small, round whole grains that belong to the grass or Poaceae family. Pearl millet was domesticated in the Sahel region of West Africa, where its wild ancestors are found. Evidence for the cultivation of pearl millet in Mali dates back to 2500 BCE (before the Common Era) and was found on the Indian subcontinent by 2300 BCE. Finger millet is native to the highlands of East Africa and was domesticated before the third millennium BCE. Its cultivation had spread to South India by 1800 BCE.
Millet, which is regarded as an ancient grain, has been a staple food in many African and Asian countries for centuries, where it has contributed to a third of the food basket. It is referred to as ‘Forgotten Food’ because consumption has declined in recent times due to scarcity, convenience, taste, and the social perception that it is poor people’s food.
However, this food has not been forgotten by the people of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, who rely on it for their survival. In these countries, it remains remain a staple among crops like cassava, yam, sweet potatoes, Bambara beans and groundnuts. Millet is high in nutrients, and grows in poor soil in semi-arid and arid conditions with low rainfall, and requires less water compared to other cereals. It has a shorter growing season, which makes it suitable for areas where rain is unpredictable, and water scarce. Millet is also considered to be a low input crop, which means it requires little fertiliser and pesticides, which reduces their impact on the environment and helps to preserve the fertility of the soil.
According to a 2022 report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the World Food Programme (WFP), 29,3% or 2,3 billion of the global population were moderately or severely food insecure, and 11,7% or 923,7 million people faced severe food insecurity. In addition, there is ‘hidden hunger’, which refers to malnutrition, meaning people have enough food, but the food they rely on does not provide enough nutrients. Women in many parts of the world are anaemic because they do not have enough red blood cells to keep them healthy, and children suffer from wasting, which means they do not grow as strongly as they should.
Dr Jacqueline Hughes, Director General at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) says: “The narrative of food and nutrition security must be expanded to include the role that millet can play to move towards more nutritious and sustainable diets and agriculture. This calls for fresh thinking around transforming our current food systems towards healthier, sustainable, resilient, and diverse food systems.”
All types of millet are renowned for their high nutritional value and health benefits. Millet is gluten-free, protein-rich starchy grain that is rich in antioxidants, soluble fibre, and protein. One cup of cooked millet contains carbohydrates (41 g), fibre (2,2 g), protein (6 g), fat (1,7 g), phosphorus (25% of daily value (DV), and magnesium (19%, folate (8%), iron (6%). Millet provides more essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein – than most other cereals. Finger millet has the highest calcium content of all cereal grains, providing 13% DV per one cup of cooked millet. Calcium is necessary to ensure healthy bones, blood vessels and nerve function.
Health benefits of millet
Antioxidants in millets, especially those with a darker colour, help heal wounds, protect the skin, and have anti-inflammatory properties.
Lower blood sugar levels
Millet is rich in indigestible carbohydrates that help control blood sugar levels and are considered ideal for people with diabetes.
Millet contains soluble fibre and protein that may help reduce cholesterol levels and keep the heart healthy, which is good for people with obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Millet is a gluten-free grain, which makes it suitable for people following a gluten-free diet. However, people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity must avoid it because it may trigger harmful digestive symptoms such as diarrhoea and nutrient malabsorption.
Despite the grain’s multiple health benefits, it also contains antinutrients, which are compounds that block or reduce your body’s absorption of other nutrients, which may lead to deficiencies. The phytic acid in millet, for instance, interferes with the absorption of potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
However, a person with a balanced diet isn’t likely to experience adverse effects. Other antinutrients called goitrogenic polyphenols may impair thyroid function, causing goitre – an enlargement of your thyroid gland that results in neck swelling. However, this effect is associated only with excess polyphenol intake when too much millet is eaten. To lower the antinutrient content, the millet can be soaked at room temperature overnight, and drained and rinsed before cooking. Sprouting also reduces the antinutrient content.
How to prepare and eat millet
Millet can be used in a variety of dishes for a balanced diet. When cooked whole, it can be used to replace rice in a meal, but remember to soak it overnight to lower the antinutrient content mentioned above. Put one cup of raw-soaked millet in two cups of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Whole millet can be used to replace rice on the menu, or as an addition to a salad, or it can be toasted in a pan as a snack. Ground into flour, it can be used for baking cakes and cookies, as pasta, or fermented to make non-dairy drinks. In this form, it has a probiotic value that increases gut health.
- Prepare the plot for planting with organic compost.
- Plant the seeds 6 cm apart in rows at least 30 cm apart. Cover with 3 cm of soil
- Add compost as the millet grows.
- Cover with mulch-like straw.
- Harvest either by hand or machine when the seeds have turned golden brown.
- Allow to dry before storing.
- Rain should provide sufficient water.
- In dry conditions, pests and diseases should be minimal.
Millet is also used as a grazing forage crop. Instead of allowing the plant to grow to maturity to harvest the seeds, the young green leaves and shoots can be grazed by sheep, goats, and cattle.
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Lang, A. (2023) What is millet? Nutrition benefits, and more. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-millet
Ongwae, E. (2023) 2023: The International Year of the Millet. The East African. https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/sponsored/2023-the-internationalyear-of-the-millet-4221708
Ongwae, E. (2023) ‘Forgotten foods’ have answers to food security, nutrition question in Africa. The East African. https://static.nation.co.ke/pdfs/DN—MilletFinal.pdf
Ongwae, E. (2023) With right crops it is possible to achieve SGDs and Zero Hunger campaign targets. The East African. https://static.nation.co.ke/pdfs/DN—Millet-Final.pdf
Ongwae, E. (2023) Millet: Drylands staple at the centre of food security. The East African. https://static.nation.co.ke/pdfs/DN—Millet-Final.pdf