Odisha is not a top millet producing state in India or a big consumer like the western and southern states, but the Odisha Millet Mission that started in 2017 is being emulated in other parts of the country and has been hailed as an “inspiring example” by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Located on the coast of the volatile Bay of Bengal, Odisha is frequently hit by cyclones, floods and droughts that have impacted lives and incomes, fuelled migration and hunger.
The state’s bet on millets aims to protect farmers’ earnings, fight malnourishment and promote healthy food alternatives, as officials cite a “fork-to-farm” strategy to foster the consumer demand necessary for farmers to plant it.
“We have to inform the next generation that it is good for the environment and also for farmers,” said Arabinda Kumar Padhee, principal secretary of Odisha state agriculture department who is heading the millet mission.
“We want to revive millets not only in farms but also on the plates of the consumers. We want it on their menu,” he said.
Similar efforts are taking root in Africa’s largest millet producing nation, Nigeria, where the government is including biskin gero, a couscous-like dish served with spicy fish sauce, in school menus for children in the northern region.
India, the world’s largest millet producer, and Nigeria jointly held a cooking festival early this year in the capital, Abuja, showcasing the grain’s use in popular recipes from both countries that share a common history of millet consumption.
In Nigeria, the government is promoting millet as a “healthy, sustainable and resilient” crop to fight hunger and malnutrition in a country where at least 25 million people are facing a food crisis, according to the United Nations.
“We know this crop is nutritious, smart and affordable. Everyone should know the value of this grain,” said Olusegun Adekunle, professor of agriculture at the University of Ilorin in western Nigeria.
While a rice-based dish costs about 500 naira ($0.65) per serving, a portion of millet meal goes for just 100 naira, Adekunle said.
Ultimately, however, the success of such initiatives depends on consumers’ willingness to swap fine wheat or rice flours for grainier millets – which remain unpopular in much of India, sometimes dismissed as fit only for animal fodder.
At a residential school in Odisha, children looked unimpressed by sweet laddu balls made from finger millet served to them as part of the millet project’s outreach work.
“This is the first time probably that we’re attempting to go back to old food habits. Now that is an uphill task with millets trying to replace staples of fine cereals, rice and wheat,” said Sreenath Dixit, principal scientist with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics.
At the Select Fresh millet store in Bhubaneshwar, owner Sidhartha Rout started a cafe to showcase millet sandwiches and pastas to improve sales.
“It’s difficult to convince people to eat millet. It needs a revolution,” he said.
In Nigeria, too, millets hold a nostalgic place in culinary history, but reinventing traditional dishes to suit modern life – and palates – could be tricky.
At an event to promote the crop in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, school teacher Sekinat Lawal fondly recalled the millet porridge her mother made with fresh milk and date syrup, and Kunu, a creamy millet drink brewed from whole grains.
But Lawal, who has two children, said preparing such labour-intensive recipes would be a challenge, ruing the lack of ready-to-eat millet-based options.
“There are TV commercials for instant noodles with children eating at a table. I don’t see the same for millet dishes,” she said.
Some 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from Lagos, in eastern India’s Keonjhar district, a millet cafe run by a women’s self-help group in premises provided to them by the state is trying to plug that gap and generate appetite for the crop.
“We like this food. I even brought my family here to try these dishes,” said bank worker Sankarshan Khatua as he tucked into a hot plate of millet fritters with a chutney.
“But I can’t seem to find millets in stores to make these at home,” Khatua said.