Millet activist Martina Dugué takes ragi to France

A small packet of ragi seeds travelled from Bangalore to Tréziers, a village south of France in June 2011. Farmer Jean Jacques Matthiew sowed them in his field. Three months later, he harvested France’s first ever yield of ragi. “I was so happy to see my ragi in France!” says Martina Dugué. The 44-year-old is silently working on a millet revolution — she wants to popularise millets in France, her home country. For millets, according to her, are among the solutions to the world’s food and environmental problems.

Martina first visited India seven years ago to study organic farming. She travelled across Karnataka, interacted with farmers and volunteered in their fields. On one such afternoon, she tasted a dish that changed her life. “I ate a ragi ball,” she says. “The texture, taste…my stomach felt so good.” For Martina, who was gluten-intolerant, ragi worked like magic. From then on, all she ate was ragi — she even earned the sobriquet ‘ragi girl’. “A lot of people in France are turning gluten-intolerant due to the high content of gluten in the wheat grown for bread,” she says. Martina hence decided to take ragi to her country.

But before that, she had a lot of work to do in India — for here, millets were seen as “poor-man’s food.” She encountered youngsters who felt millets were not fashionable. But why were millets, once the staple food in most parts of the country, sidelined? Martina’s quest for answers took her deep into the world of our country’s farmers. She met pioneering organic famers such as Nammalvar and Narayana Reddy, heard first hand from farmers who switched to cash crops instead of millets.

“To produce one kg of rice, we require about 3,700 to 5,000 litres of water!” says Martina. But this is not the case with millets. “They can withstand drought conditions. We can save water by consuming millets.” Martina popularised ragi through word-of-mouth in the places she visited. Soon, the ‘ragi girl’ became well-known in Karnataka. A Kannada newspaper carried a story on her and the response was tremendous. People started trying out the ‘new’ cereal.

Thus, Martina turned a millet activist. Anybody can become one, she feels. All we have to do is “choose what goes into our plate.” “A homemaker can become an activist by introducing millets into the family’s diet.” He/she can come up with innovative recipes. “They can add ragi to dosa batter and reduce the amount of rice,” she suggests. “We can start a millet cooking revolution.”

In France, she introduced ragi pasta in a restaurant. “Those who tasted the samples really liked it,” she says. The restaurateur was even willing to put the dish on his menu. Martina also contributed articles about millets in French environmental journals. “A lot of farmers contacted me after reading them. They wanted to find out more,” she says. Such responses give her the confidence that she can “bring millets into modernity.”

She has made a documentary titled Millets On My Platter based on her experiences in India and plans to screen it for farmers, doctors, nutritionists and students in France and also upload it on YouTube. Martina also travelled across France in search of farmers who cultivated millets — “I found only five people who did so. They grew the ‘common millet’ variety.” She also found that 50 years ago, her grandfather cultivated millets.

“A group of senior citizens is cultivating the common millet in my department (county subdivision). It can be used to make a delicious variety of dessert. We are planning to introduce the dish in an organic school canteen,” she explains. She also foresees a time when it becomes fashionable to eat ‘ragi pasta’.

Martina says that she will not stop with France and India. “I plan to travel to Africa and talk to the leaders. This is my small contribution to the cause. With synergy of efforts by people from other parts of the world, millets can become a worldwide phenomenon.” Millets, however, are not the solution to all of our problems; the solution is rather a “set of practices,” she adds.