Written by Elena ValeriotePhotography and video by Alberto Mitiin collaboration with Dr. ED Israel Oliver King, MSSRF
THE SUN HAS JUST STARTED 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 crowded, colorful businesses that spill out onto the dusty sidewalk. 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 Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop’s entryway as a symbol of good luck.
Malarkodi works here several days a week stocking the narrow store’s green bookshelves, which are laden with neatly packaged products 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. These contain eleven varieties of flour mixes, all made with small millets.
For Malarkodi and many local women, life revolves around this underappreciated grain, just as it did for their mothers and grandmothers; however, while small millets once drained the energy of the women who farmed them, today they are a source of empowerment.
Small millets are one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world and have long been a part of traditional regional diets across India, but over the last half century they’ve been pushed by farmers in favor of less-intensive cash crops such as rice, coffee, cassava and peppercorn.
Even when they are farmed on small land patches, small millets require enormous amounts of physical labor. Women are responsible for millet planting, harvesting, and cooking. In fact, these grains are known as the “women’s crop” in Tamil, the language spoken in Tamil Nadu.
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 agriculture for their livelihoods. IN 1988, several decades after pioneering the monoculture movement, Swaminathan founded the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) with the intention of restoring traditional farming practices in India and protecting its rich agrobiodiversity.
IF IT WERE NOT FOR PROFESSOR M.S. SWAMINATHAN and Dr. Israel Oliver King, there would likely be no Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop and no employment for Malarkodi other than the unrelenting 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. An ethnobotanist, he specializes in understanding the interactions between plants and people, expertise that led him to recognize the irreplaceable cultural, economic, ecological and nutritional value of small millets for the Malayali, an indigenous group of small-scale farmers living in Tamil Nadu. Recognizing that small millet varieties native to the region were on the verge of extinction, King developed a plan to protect them for the wellbeing of the local community and the local ecosystem.
Until recently, farming in Kolli Hills was solitary work. Local small millet seed varieties survived solely by individual farmers making the effort to conserve them for personal use. King encouraged the farmers of Kolli Hills to join together in self help groups that ultimately led to 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 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: crop yield, climate resilience and flavor. By focusing on both yield and resilience, KHABCoFED could guarantee that a diverse array of small millets would survive and thrive, 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, are naturally hardy 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. They are proud to be amongst the Federation’s “Custodian Farmers,” who save, collect, store and share the Federation’s seeds.
The Centers also offer educational opportunities focused on small millets to train new and existing Custodian Farmers. Curriculum 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, commercialization and consumption.
WHEN THE FEDERATION WAS FIRST ESTABLISHED, Malarkodi was an adolescent. 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. She rose early each morning and headed out to her mother’s small millet fields. Come harvest time, they would manually collect the small millets, taking care not to lose seeds from their delicate clusters.
Threshing and dehusking removed the seeds’ hard outer layers, a process that required the use of a heavy pestle and mortar. Then came cleaning and milling. Even after the last grains were ground into flour, there was always more work in the fields or in the kitchen. Malarkodi was left with neither time nor energy to consider pursuing a profession outside the borders of her family’s land.
But the Federation opened up a new path 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 technical training to Malarkodi and other local women so they could operate the processing center’s production machinery. By learning these skills and getting access to the right tools, these women were able to pursue other opportunities that the Federation helped to create for their communities.
TODAY, MALARKODI IS ONE OF 537 MALAYALI WOMEN in the Federation. Their work contributes to growing a 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 millet-milling machines, Malarkodi also participated in a course centered on techniques for adding value to millet-based products. At the Center, she helps oversee 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 appeal to Indian mothers who want 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 earns a livelihood for herself and her family while also upholding historic food and agricultural traditions for the benefit of her community.
MALARKODI ONCE FARMED SMALL MILLETS exclusively for her household; that very short supply chain now extends to small food businesses. They have begun to see value in small millets, which now appear on restaurant menus in the region.
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 farmers of the Federation in Kolli Hills—small millet production 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.
by Joanna Kane-Potaka, ICRISAT
INDIA IS WITNESSING A GROUNDSWELL OF SUPPORT for ancient grains. It’s both a movement led by farmers who recognize the amazing value of millets as a smart food and a national initiative with the Indian government leading the charge to support the UN’s International Year of Millets.
Millets are also highly useful for improving children’s diets. The first scientific study about a millet-based school feeding program was released in December 2019. Chefs and nutritionists designed healthy, tasty meals for 1,500 adolescent children in 2 schools. An equal number in a control group were fed standard meals featuring iron-fortified rice and sambar (a legume stew). The initial results were clear. After only three months, children receiving millets grew 50% more than those in the control group. Researchers then did something radical: they substituted white rice with millet: the kids loved it.
The top three micronutrient deficiencies children face are iron, zinc and vitamin A. Most millets are high in iron and zinc; in fact, they can provide the same amount of iron as chicken, even when accounting for its bioavailability. Although the absorption of plant-based iron is less than its meat-based counterpart, iron levels are so high in some millets that they can serve as a major source of iron and studies have shown it can also reduce anemia.
Millet provides an abundance of health benefits. With India soon to have the most cases of diabetes in the world, a key message from Indian doctors to their pre-diabetic or diabetic patients has emerged: eat less white rice and return to traditional staples like millet.
Legumes are the most commonly known plant-based source of protein and are particularly important in largely-vegetarian countries like India. A recently published study analyzed the protein in millets and showed that while legumes have good protein levels of protein, they lack a complete protein, as they are low in one essential amino acid—methionine—which millets have. When combined with legumes, millets can provide a complete, highly-digestible protein, unlike white rice, refined wheat and maize.
Finally, while often hailed as the next quinoa, millets may show even greater promise as they can grow across nearly every continent. Not only is this ancient grain a superfood—gluten-free, high in antioxidants, high in fiber, low glycaemic index, and good for losing weight—it’s also environmentally sustainable and climate-smart, befitting its description of being good for you, good for the planet and good for the farmer.
by Katelyn Mann of The Lexicon
edited by Israel Oliver King of M.S. Swaminathan
Research Foundation (MSSRF)
The name millets refers to a variety of grasses with small seeds that are grown throughout the world as crops for animal fodder and human consumption, especially across Asia and Africa. While all millets are members of the Poaceae, grass, family, there are a number of subfamilies and different genuses that all hold millet species. As a plant that uses C4 photosynthesis, millet is adapted to grow in hot summer months with little water.