Whatever rice and wheat can do, millets can do better as established by cookies, savouries and all manner of munchies.
With the United Nations declaring 2023 as the Year of Millets earlier this year, pearl, foxtail, amaranth, broomcorn and buckwheat are back in the news. Widely used in India and popular as bajra, kakum, rajgira, chena and kuttu, millets are not just a passing fad.
Indian, Chinese and Egyptian civilisations used these cereals 6,000 years ago, and the Vedas make mention of a tribal girl feeding Lord Muruga a meal of foxtail millet and honey. Once a staple in almost every region, the cultivation of millets went into decline in India due to a host of factors including colonisation and changed cropping patterns.
“There was a time when rice was served only during festivals and only the very rich could afford to eat it regularly,” says Mahesh Basavanna, CEO and founder of OrgTree in Mandya, Karnataka.
He adds, “Despite having to be hand pounded, millets were the only cultivable option for thousands of years in the rain-fed Aravallis. The Government supply of rice, which was easier to cook, slowly edged out other millets, except for ragi.”
Presently Kiru by OrgTree manufactures millet-based food products such as cookies, crunchies and energy bars.
In 2015, Kiru teamed up with 400 farmers for a direct supply of millets, eliminating the middlemen. “Their women work in our factories which has also resulted in an increase in the income levels of their households. Almost 80% of our raw material comes from the farmers directly and 80% of our employees are women,” he says.
“As a crop, millets do not need a lot of attention and can greatly boost the village economy as they can be grown on non-arable land,” says NS Krishnamoorthi, founder of Prem’s Graama Bhojanam — a restaurant in Chennai known for its millet-based and farm-fresh menu.
The lockdown proved to be a blessing in disguise for Mahesh, who says, “We used to supply to corporates and SAP labs, which halted work due to COVID-19. We had to adapt and come up with a product that could be retailed and since April we have seen a marked improvement in sales.”
The lockdowns were a blessing in disguise for Slurrp Farms. “Our sales have grown three times in the past year. More people are reading labels these days, but apart from wanting to try out healthy alternatives, many were finding their way around a kitchen for the first time,” says Meghana Narayan, one of the founders of Gurugram-based Slurrp Farm which has a range of millet-based breakfast cereals, dosa and pancake mixes as well as munchies.
“When my daughter was born, my grandmother roasted six to seven different grains and ground them into a fine powder for porridge. We have a heritage of millet and porridge eating culture across India,” says Meghana.
As young mothers, Shauravi Malik and Meghana were very conscious of the dietary needs of their little ones. “Suddenly it seemed all the products out there contained maida , sugar and hydrogenated fats. Having children is a game-changer and we wanted to ensure ours had the best in terms of nutrition and taste.”
As best friends, the duo always wanted to get into business together. “Millets were not our immediate answer; we were looking for better, healthier alternatives. With Slurrp we were not inventing new products; we were bringing existing ones in a format that were easy for mothers to put on the table, without having to think twice about nutritional content.”
Having launched in early 2017, Meghana says there has been a steady increase in sales. “Though our target audience might be children, young adults also enjoy the convenience of opening an instant pancake pack.
Mahesh believes the awareness of millets and not the products is key in helping consumers opt for a healthier lifestyle.
According to Devaraddi Agasanakoppa of KNS organic farm in Gadag, Karnataka, the region of north Karnataka regularly consumed millets such as jowar, bajra and ragi.
“The year-on-year growth in these places has been around 7-9%. However, with growing awareness in cities, the demand has gone up to 12 to 15%, with some metros showing up to a 20% increase in the past decade,” he says, adding that during the pandemic the demand for millets, cold pressed oils and jaggery further shot up.
“When I began my restaurant seven years ago, I thought my clientele would be those in the ‘above 45 age group. Happily, 75% of my customers were in the 30 to -35 age group with their children in tow,” says Krishnamoorthi, adding, “Many young adults are now more aware of healthier food options and are consciously moving away from the food habits they were brought up on. By eating well and inculcating a similar lifestyle in their children, it would seem this positive trend is here to stay.”