India is a nation of rice eaters, and those who do not eat rice, prefer wheat. That was the general perception, and our reputation overseas, until the government of India discovered the health benefits of millets. Since then, the food menu in some parts of the country has been witnessing a change that could eventually push rice and wheat to the edge of our plate.
The government is so convinced of the benefits – in terms of health, nutrition, cultivation and environment – of the crop that the United Nations was persuaded to declare 2023 as the International Year of Millets.
The story gets even more interesting. Even though a minimum support price is announced every year, some farmers prefer to sell their crop in the open market. The crop is being purchased directly from farmers by entrepreneurs.
The challenging part here is that entrepreneurs have to come up with consumer-friendly products because millets are not as friendly to the palate as rice and wheat.
Yet, something is driving more and more entrepreneurs to take up this challenge.
One such entrepreneur is Meghana Narayan, based in Delhi, who had grown up eating ragi (finger millet). “I grew up in Bengaluru. I used to swim competitively.”
There is a huge difference in the physique of an average person and a sportsperson. You need a much stronger physique and a lot of stamina to be able to compete with the best. Achieving this physique and stamina necessitates higher intake of food. Not just any food, but nutritious food that strengthens your body and improves stamina.
Meghana says, “But, I did not have any special diet that sportspersons have nowadays. Just plain ragi porridge. I used to eat a bowl of ragi porridge every day. And, I was good enough to represent Karnataka and India in multiple competitions (in the 1990s).”
Later, when she was going to have a child, she began looking for healthy food options. The quest made her aware of a gap in the market. In 2016, she co-founded Slurrp Farm with Shauravi Malik, who is half-Kannadiga.
“We are sort of two mums who started this when we realised there were just no healthy options in the market for children. We are now very much a millet company, but that was not our intention. We did not set out to be a millet company. We just wanted to make healthy options for children whenever from when they started eating solids. We felt that most products in that range for children are made of maida (all purpose flour), filled with refined sugar and artificial colours, and preservatives. A whole bunch of high salt, high sugar kind of thing. So first, it was a little bit about trying to create products, which didn’t have any of these. We made a list of 100 things that we would not add in any product based on what we didn’t want to feed our own children. Maybe you need outsiders to ask the really dumbo questions (to FMCG companies) – like why do you need to use soy lecithin? Why do you need this or that? Those kind of really basic basic questions, which maybe if you were in the food industry, you would not have asked.
“Eventually, I realised that the answers lay in our mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens.”
The driving force of millets may be nutrition and health, but there are many entrepreneurs who will tell you that merely offering healthy options did not directly translate into a successful business.
Sreejith Moolayil, co-founder of Pune-based True Elements, says, “Evolution-wise, we are driven by our tongue. That is our primary filtering mechanism. How much ever we harp on health, taste comes first. I set up two start-ups in a bid to sell healthy food. I had to shut down both. Look, Indians love their food. But, they want it to look a certain way and taste a certain way. If it is also healthy, that’s just a bonus.”
No doubt, healthy lifestyle is trending nowadays. You see thousands of images on Instagram, you read millions of articles on healthy food and eating, and everyone talks of how they have taken a conscious decision to follow a healthy lifestyle.
Sreejith was taken in by all the talk and photos. He thought he would have a successful business by catering to these people. When his first start-up failed to take off, he figured out his mistakes and promptly set up another start-up catering to the same health-conscious segment.
But, when the second start-up too failed to take off, he realised that he had not interpreted the lessons from the failure of the first start-up correctly.
In a population of 140 crore (1.4 billion) people, the number of health-conscious Indians, who would actually put their money where their mouth is, was not enough to sustain his business model. He realised that Indians like to talk about a healthy lifestyle, but won’t change their eating habits, no matter how unhealthy the food they consume.
How did India become a nation of rice eaters?
According to Manoj Ahuja, Secretary, Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, millets are the traditional food of India, and can be grown in difficult terrain too.
Some time in the 1960s, India decided to go in for a ‘Green Revolution’. Agriculture was turned into an industry with the aim of ensuring self-sufficiency in foodgrains. The Green Revolution focused on increasing cultivation of rice and wheat.
After independence, for around 2 decades India was afflicted by famine, floods and drought, which resulted in food shortage. Foreign countries offered aid in the form of wheat and rice. Later, the government began importing wheat and rice. As import of the two commodities proved expensive, the government decided to invest in increasing production in India. India invested in R&D and irrigation network, and offered a guarantee to purchase the crop.
Abhishek Jain, Fellow and Director — Powering Livelihoods at Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water, says, “We came up with better varieties of rice and wheat, offered electricity to facilitate pumping of water, and farmers were assured of procurement, which means the market risk was taken care of.”
With farmers who opted for cultivation of rice and wheat reporting an increase in income, millets were sidelined. In the last 60 years, the area under millet cultivation has gone down from roughly 35 million hectares to 15 million hectares.
The millets family
Pearl Millet (Bajra)
Finger Millet (Ragi/Mandua)
Kodo Millet (Kodo)
Proso Millet (Cheena)
Foxtail Millet (Kangani/Kakun)
Little Millet (Kutki)
Barnyard Millet (Sawa/Sanwa/ Jhangora)
Source: Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare
In the 2000s, talk of climate change and its implications sowed the seeds of a movement to reverse this trend. The government of India had a change of heart on the Green Revolution, which was reflected in an initiative in 2010 to focus on cultivation and consumption of millets.
Actually, the government was not doing anything new; it was merely going back to what Indian farmers were cultivating before the Green Revolution.
Impact of rice on the food plate, health of Indians and our natural resources
Former Niti Aayog CEO and India’s G20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant says millets are rich in micronutrients.
They can be grown in relatively dry areas, need less water than rice and wheat, have better tolerance to heat as compared to rice and wheat, and are rich in nutrients.
While rice and wheat release glucose into the blood stream in a burst, millets release glucose in a gradual manner, which makes them a good cereal for diabetics.
The period when the number of Indians afflicted by diabetes went up was also the time when people were migrating in increasing numbers to cities where rice and wheat were more easily available, as compared to millets.
In March 2021, Amitabh Kant posted a tweet to highlight the impact of rice and wheat on India’s water resources.
Even if rhetorical, this tweet aptly sums up the impact of the cultivation of rice and wheat on our water resources, especially when India is not lacking in better alternatives in terms of foodgrains.
The cultivation of rice and wheat necessitates use of more water when compared to millets. India has been investing a lot of money in improving the irrigation network for its farmers who cultivate rice and wheat. But, if cultivation of millets can be done with much less water, and millets are more nutritious than rice and wheat, why is India pouring funds into building dams and canals that invariably also involve displacement of people?
The challenge in changing food habits of Indians now
The circumstances today are very different from what they were in the 1960s. In the 1960s, India was struggling with famines and food shortage. People would eat whatever was available. It was not very difficult to persuade them to shift from millets to rice or wheat.
In 2023, Indians are a very different lot. They have not seen or even heard of food shortage in the last 40 years. The current generation takes food availability for granted. Rice and wheat are the staple of Indian households. Various preparations of rice and wheat dominate food shelves in supermarkets.
So, millets may be good for the environment, for economic reasons, for saving our precious water resources and even health-wise, but these reasons may not be enough to persuade a generation of Indians, who are spoilt for choice, to shift to millets.
Food is a touchy issue. A demonetisation-like change-overnight strategy will not work.
A different strategy was necessary. So, while India has been promoting millets since 2010, the government proposed celebrating 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets’, which was approved by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). After the announcement, the Indian government took the lead in celebrating the ‘International Year of Millets’.
Declaration by the UN of celebrating 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets’ has drawn the attention of the entire world to the humble foodgrain. This leads to generation of a lot of content worldwide on millets.
Indians, as we all know, have a tendency to consider everything that comes from the West to be superior. The thinking of Indians is – If the Western media says that millets are good, they must be telling the truth. In terms of marketing strategy, you can’t get better than this.
But, Sreejith will tell you that Indians might be happy to read all about the health benefits of millets in the media, but that does not necessarily translate to them changing their food eating habits.
“My second start-up shut down because everyone thought people want healthy in-between snacks and beverages. We put up a chain of kiosks inside companies to serve that. Then, we realised that people who want healthy food are very few. People actually want tasty food that could be healthy.
“In India, two things are important when it comes to food:
- The way it looks
- The way it tastes
“Health comes after that.
“If we can crack these two points, then people are open to experiment.
“Take, for example, poha, which is made of rice and is very popular in several parts of India. If we introduce jowar poha, people think: jowar does not taste good, it looks different. Should I even try?
“So first, I need to make my product look like rice. Then, I need to make it taste like rice.
“Once I have done these, I can tell the consumer — Try this.
“If our jowar product matches the rice, adoption will be quicker.
“We are focused on doing that.”
“Every month, we launch 3-4 products. In a quarter, we pull back up to 9 products. We have 2 times more failed products than what you see in our inventory now.
“Let me tell you about one of our experiments. We thought that most of India starts breakfast with savoury products. Not spicy, mild spicy, but savoury kind of products.
“Take Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. They would be fine with a sweet-kinda breakfast. But, rest of India want something that is not sweet-kinda stuff.
“Now, all the Western breakfast options – muesli, oats, granola – are sweet. So, that’s not meant for India. So, let’s launch a muesli that is savoury. We launched a chatpata muesli that is savoury.
“We invested a lot, and we expected huge success. But, that product has not been selling.
“We thought we had the right product for this market – muesli that is not sweet.
“But what consumers thought is — muesli is sweet. If we sell a product that we call muesli, it cannot be savoury.
“And when we told, ‘you have this with dahi’, consumers said: ‘In the morning, I don’t have dahi as a base. I might have a bowl of dahi, but dahi cannot be the base’.”
Such experiences have shaped the business strategy of Sreejith. True Elements does not introduce new products. At least, not overtly. The team prefers to offer alternatives to existing fast-moving products.
“When we introduced a new product, we had to make a consumer aware of
- Why should we eat this
- When do we eat this
- How to eat this
“It’s a big mountain to climb. That’s when we realised, let’s not create a new category. Let’s just not launch a product where a consumer asks when and how to eat this.
“I would rather give a poha made of jowar. You know how poha looks. You how poha tastes. You know how to eat poha. You know when to eat poha. So, I will give you jowar poha.”
True Elements invests a lot of time and effort at their R&D centre and manufacturing unit in Pune to get the taste as close to the original as possible.
Sreejith says, “Mimicking the taste of wheat or maida with millet is something we are yet to crack. We have not even tried making cookies because they taste a certain way.”
Taste, therefore, is what you are up against when you are in the food business with the aim of changing the food habits of your target consumers.
Meghana says, “I used to eat a bowl of ragi porridge every day. It was God-awful tasting. Yet, here I was, faced with the challenge of persuading my potential consumer to try this stuff. The more we researched, the process of how to make these really tasty became important to us. When we interviewed mothers, they were like, we bought lots of health food products once. The message was – the food may have been healthy, but they were not tasty.
“So, the idea was like, whatever we make has to be really tasty. We work really hard at this. It took us almost two years to get our first products out. We launched with toddler cereals and cookies. The base grain was millet, and we’ve never looked back since then. We’ve been doing millets since 2015-16.”
How entrepreneurs reach their customers
True Elements sells 75% of their products through Amazon and other online platforms while the rest is routed through retails chains in south & west India. In 2022, FMCG major Marico took a 54% stake in True Elements. Marico is not interested in marketing the products of True Elements, but is figuring out the online marketplace that the relatively-young-company operates in.
Slurrp Farm sells on Amazon, but their products are also available in 1,200-odd stores across India. Meghana says, “The plan is to get that to about 10,000 stores by 2026.” Slurrp Farm has raised over $10 million (approx ₹80 crore) in the last five years.
In contrast, Siri Millets is a brand that you are more likely to see in retail stores as compared to online. In comparison to True Elements and Slurrp Farm, 80% of the business of Siri Millets is through retail outlets in Karnataka.
Siri Millets is an initiative of Shree Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project (SKDRDP). It was founded on the philosophy that Indians need a foodgrain that is healthy, is nutritious, and is environment-friendly.
Healthy was a driving factor at SKDRDP because Siri Millets was the brainchild of D. Veerendra Heggade, administrator of the Sri Dharmasthala Manjunatha Swamy temple in Dharmasthala, Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, and a member of the Rajya Sabha. His family trust runs several educational institutions, and he is aware of the lifestyle diseases that plague the current generation. SKDRDP is one of the initiatives of D. Veerendra Heggade.
The pursuit of a healthier lifestyle for Indians led his team to millets. Being a philanthropist and social worker all his life, D. Veerendra Heggade chose a holistic approach. His team researched millets and farmers who grow the crop. Based on the findings of their research, they began by setting up a processing unit in Dharwad, in north Karnataka, to process millets. The mill processes millets procured directly from farmers, offering them an opportunity to value-add to their crop, and thus, encourages cultivation of millets.
This strategy is aligned with what the government wants to achieve.
Dr B. Dayakar Rao, Principal Scientist at Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR) in Hyderabad, says, “Up to now, farmers had been growing millets only for their own consumption. But now, the government of India wants them to commercialise the crop. One of the constraints for millet farmers was the lack of processing technology. There was no incentive to grow more than what the family of the farmer needed. Even the government’s earlier policies did not help. Government announced an MSP, but did not procure millets. Government only procured rice and wheat, which created an incentive to grow more rice and wheat. With millets, there was never a constraint of supply. The only constraint was demand. Without demand, there was no incentive to develop processing technology for millets. Right now, the government is doing all it can to promote millet cultivation and consumption.”
Traditionally, millets have been associated with farmers and people from the lower strata of society while well-heeled people preferred rice and wheat. But, in its new avatar, millets are being described by the government of India as nutricereals — foodgrains that provide most of the nutrients required by humans.
Another significant step was setting up Nutrihub to encourage budding entrepreneurs who were working with nutricereals (millets). Nutrihub is hosted at IIMR with Dr Dayakar Rao as the CEO. Its aim is to ‘commercialise innovations and startups in the nutricereals industry’.
Dr Dayakar Rao says, “Nutrihub brings together stakeholders in the millet sector. Over the last 5 years, a commercial aspect of millet cultivation has emerged, which is good for you (consumer), good for business, good for the planet (environment) and good for the farmer.”
How to bring down resistance to change
As the mill set up by D. Veerendra Heggade began delivering various millet-based products, they were sold under the brand Siri Millets, for which SKDRDP set up a distribution channel across Karnataka.
Though the idea of Siri Millets was conceived in 2018, it took them two years to fine-tune their products, which are now available in stores all over Karnataka. The company has recorded annual revenue of ₹10 crore.
The business is overseen by D. Dinesh who works from an office in Hubballi, in north Karnataka, which is arguably the biggest millet-growing region in India.
One of their interesting products, which is offered online, is a 7-day trial pack, which is packaged as a nutri basket. This product is targetted at people who suffer from three diseases – diabetes, obesity and PCOD. These were identified during research on the major diseases afflicting Indians. A person can purchase this trial pack, which comprises a diet for 7 days. A satisfied customer is likely to veer towards millets.
One of the major challenges faced by the company while marketing millets was a question by consumers – in what form do we consume millets. Rice is consumed in a meal, as a dosa, as idli. Wheat is most often consumed in the form of a roti. But, how do people consume millets?
Siri Millets turned this problem into an opportunity.
Dinesh says, “The launch of any product is accompanied by awareness material through various media – online and offline. Besides health benefits, the awareness material includes comprehensive instructions on how to make a meal from a product. This has ensured that all our products find takers.”
Slurrp Farm depends on their friends and fans to test each new product. It is not foolproof, but it works for the most part.
Meghana says, “We have a community of mothers across the country who try our products and give extensive feedback. We don’t ever launch a product unless it comes back with a resounding Yes! Despite this, there will be products that don’t take off.”
True Elements focuses on its core philosophy of healthy products. The company identifies popular items and comes up with healthier alternatives while keeping the look and taste as close to the original as possible.
Sreejith says, “If you are eating dosa, and the same taste is available in ragi dosa, you will feel cool, that I am eating something healthy. Then, you will stick to it. We are giving something that is healthy and tasty.”
The company began with oats, which is considered very healthy in the West. Oats are imported. Problems with importing forced Sreejith’s team to look at alternatives in India.
“When we entered the market, oats was synonymous with health. We started off as and were an oats brand for 1-1/2 years. When there was an import issue with oats, we looked for Indian alternatives. We discovered jowar. The same farmer was also growing ragi and bajra. Thus began our discovery of the healthy foodgrains of India. Today, 60% of our products have millets.”
Dr Dayakar Rao says, “But, we’re not saying stop eating rice and only eat millet. We’re saying twice a week, replace your rice with millet. Rice and wheat are grown elsewhere in the world, but millets are our primary crop. India accounts for 20% of world production, 80% in Asia, and is the largest exporter. Millets are a resilient crop. They can withstand high temperature, which puts them in a better position to face the impact of climate change. On the other hand, an increase in temperature impacts the yield of rice and wheat.”
Abhishek Jain of CEEW says, “In 2022, wheat production was down 15% because of heat waves and the early onset of summer. This impacted quality and also productivity of the crop. In comparison, we have a crop like bajra (pearl millet), which is grown in Rajasthan. Bajra has higher tolerance to heat. At the same time, the inputs – water and fertilizers – are much lesser for bajra when compared to wheat and rice. However, the productivity per acre of bajra is much lesser than rice and wheat. But, to be fair, we have not invested anything in increasing the productivity of millets, especially when compared to rice and wheat.”
Why millets are trending
Yet, for those curious about how millets fared after being relegated to less fertile areas, here are some interesting numbers.
Dr Dayakar Rao says, “In the last 60 years, the area of cultivation for millets went down from 35 million hectares (1960-65) to 15 million (2023) hectares. With the government procuring rice and wheat, they were seen as commercially profitable crops. Rice and wheat got the best cultivable land while millets were relegated to less fertile land. Yet, production went up from 15 million tonnes (1960-65) to 17 million tonnes (2023). Going by this, instead of eating rice and wheat, India should be championing millets.”
For the record
Calcium levels in millets are very high compared to milk
Millets are a good source of iron
Millets are free of gluten
For diabetics, glycemic index in millets is medium type, and is lower than in rice and wheat
Millets do not release carbs immediately, but gradually making it easier for your body to absorb gl
Meghana says, “These grains (millets) are born organic. They are nutritionally super. So high in calcium, I’ll never forget the first time I saw a nutritional table for ragi. I thought there was a typo, like the decimal was in the wrong place. That’s the kind of calcium level.”
|Grains||Carb (g)||Protein (g)||Fat (g)||Calcium (mg)||Potassium (mg)||Magnesium (mg)||Zing (mg)||Iron (mg)||Folic acid (µg)|
|Pearl Millet (Bajra)||61.8||10.9||5.43||27.4||289||124||2.7||6.4||36.1|
|Finger Millet (Ragi/Mandua)||66.8||7.2||1.92||364.0||210||146||2.5||4.6||34.7|
|Kodo Millet (Kodo)||66.2||8.9||2.55||15.3||101||122||1.6||2.3||39.5|
|Proso Millet (Cheena)||70.4||12.5||1.10||14.0||2.06||153||1.4||0.8||–|
|Foxtail Millet (Kangani/Kakun)||60.1||12.3||4.30||31.0||188||81||2.4||2.8||15|
|Barnyard Millet (Sawa/Sanwa/ Jhangora)||65.5||6.2||2.20||20.0||280||82||3.0||5.0||–|
|Amaranth seed (Chaulai)||61||13.3||5.60||162.0||412||270||2.8||8.0||24.7|
|Source: FSSAI & Indian Food Composition Tables, 2017|
If millets yield the health benefits they promise, Indians may have a future with fewer lifestyle diseases, which could translate into lesser medical expenses.
Sreejith believes that shifting to millets might even bring down the pressure on India’s medical infrastructure.
The benefits of cultivating millets for farmers and the soil
According to Prof. Nagaraja T.E., Department of Genetics and Plant Breading at UAS-Bengaluru, “Millets require lower amounts of fertilizers when compared to rice and wheat. Traditionally, millets have been a climate-resilient crop, and can be grown in almost any part of India. They do not need much water or fertilizers. Relative to rice and wheat, they are less impacted by weeds or insects, which means less-to-no pesticide.”
If all this sounds too good to be true, analyse the economics of cultivating millets.
Traditionally, farmers do not invest a lot of money while cultivating millets. For one, there is no reason to. There is no market for millets; most of the crop is for the consumption of the farmer’s family. The government does not buy millets, and neither does any private company. So, no point really in investing money on fertilizers or pesticides.
On the other hand, there is a lot of truth in the amount of pesticides that go into cultivation of rice and wheat with the aim of maximising production.
Abhishek Jain says, “Why did farmers in Punjab start growing rice? Because of an eco-system created around rice. On the input side, we came up with better variety of rice, offered electricity to facilitate pumping of water, and farmers were assured of procurement, which means the market risk was taken care of. Now, an eco-system has to created for a more diversified cropping pattern.”
In Karnataka, efforts to create such an eco-system began in 2017.
Venkatramreddy Patil, Additional Director (organic farming), Government of Karnataka (GoK), says, “Millets came to the attention of officials in 2004 when GoK was promoting organic farming. Organic farming took off in Karnataka, but millets did not get any special attention. In 2017, when GoK was looking for drought resistant crops, millets once again came into the picture. GoK is promoting cultivation and consumption of millets for three reasons:
- They are drought resistant, less susceptible to the impact of climate change
- They are nutritious
- They are good for the planet because they require less water compared to rice and wheat; they do not require pesticides, which is good for the soil
Most farmers grow millets for their own consumption. If they want additional income, they needed to grow other crops. This would further reduce the area for cultivation of millets. To arrest this shift to other crops, GoK began offering incentives to farmers who grew the lesser-known millets. But, there were no takers for surplus stock. So, GoK started encouraging the setting up of food processing units focused on millets. These units purchase the surplus and convert them into products, like dosa batter or cookies, that can be sold to consumers through retail stores.”
There are attempts in Karnataka to distribute millets through the public distribution system (PDS). But, officials have noticed that some farmers are reluctant to sell to the government at the minimum support price (MSP). While reliable data is not available, officials believe that some farmers are getting a better price for certain varieties of millets in the open market.
Which brings us to the entrepreneurs who are buying millets directly from farmers, and turning them into consumer-friendly products for sale in retail outlets in the open market.
Nutrihub of IIMR alone is incubating around 300 start-ups focused on millets.
And, these entrepreneurs are catering to a growing appetite among Indians to explore the beneficial aspects of millets.