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TO PROFILE SMALL MILLETS’ PRODUCTION in India, we selected a farmers organization that focuses on the promotion and conservation of local agrobiodiversity, and in particular small millets, as a tool to foster women empowerment, food sovereignty and resilience to climatic and economic shocks.
The name “small millet” encompasses at least 6 millet varieties: finger millet, proso millet, foxtail millet, little millet, barnyard millet and Kodo. These crops are highly nutritious, require little water, have a small carbon footprint and a diversity of uses, from beverages to edible cutlery. Small millets have long been neglected in favor of more financially lucrative crops but their nutritional profile and versatility are now bringing them renewed attention. The real protagonists of this rediscovery are farmers in India, especially women. Supported by local NGOs who provide technical and entrepreneurial skills, these farmers are using small millets to fight the malnutrition that is affecting their villages and foster rural development.
Millet is prized for its ability to thrive in hot and dry environments, its resilience to droughts and its short growing season. The reliability of millet in poor growing conditions compared to other grains has made millet a major crop in Saharan countries of western Africa and drought stricken regions of southeast Asia. Despite these adaptations, if provided good soil health and moisture, millet can produce 2-4 times more grain per hectare. Millets are increasingly important crops as climate change increases marginal land, and the need to grow nutritious crops in poor conditions grows.
Millets are nutritious grains, high in dietary fiber and gluten-free. Millets contain 7-12g protein per 100g of raw grain, depending on the millet species, placing them in a similar protein range as wheat and significantly higher than rice or maize. In addition to significant protein and carbohydrate levels, millets contain important essential fatty acids. Millets are a good source of multiple types of Vitamin Bs, as well as Iron, Magnesium, Manganese and Phosphorus. Polyphenols in millets are known to promote a low glycaemic index, helping reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
The Kolli Hills Agro-biodiversity Conservers Federation, commonly known as KHABCoFED, is a social enterprise composed of self help groups, farmers interest groups and millets farmers from Kolli Hills villages, in Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu, India. In 2016, Kolli Hills Agribioresource Company limited is formed with the idea of upscaling business with varied strategies.
Supported by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), the aim of the federation is to manage and promote local agrobiodiversity heritage, especially local small millets varieties. Its philosophy is centred on the “farm to fork” ideology of the 4C, a holistic value chain approach to address issues of conservation, cultivation, commercialisation and consumption of the region’s local produce.
The Conservers include 820 member farmers across 45 settlements across Kolli Hills. 538 of these farmers are women and they play a key role in the whole value chain of millet, locally called “the women crop”. Thanks to the rising importance that millets are gaining in the indian market and the construction of a local, fully integrated value chain, women farmers are increasingly improving their livelihood and earning the tools to be the protagonist of their villages’ economical life.
The story of KHABCoFED is a great example of how agrobiodiversity can be used as a tool to regain food sovereignty, improve local diets and create new business opportunities that benefit farmers and the environment.
Compass India (Gurugram, Haryana) decided to buy KHABCoFED small millets and small millets value added products for the Canteens in India. The FACT Agrobiodiversity Activator has established a connection between actors across the value chain and the Federation is now being onboarded as a supplier to Compass Group.
The FACT Agrobiodiversity Activator will launch a pilot test of the Traceability Tool on the millets supply chain from Kolli Hills to Gurugram. The pilot will improve transparency in each step of the chain and show the impact of incorporating and accessing more agrobiodiversity. Consumers at the Canteen will be able to see the full story of their food and the people involved in its production, with a focus on how important were their choices for agrobiodiversity. Then, both the consumers and the company will be able to decide to reward this effort with an extra and, activating a benefit sharing mechanism, they will support Kolli Hills millet farmers in continuing their precious work.
Farming small millets requires much less agricultural inputs—like fertilizers and pesticides— compared to wheat and rice, while their fibrous root network helps maintain soil integrity. The byproduct of their processing (stems, husks, straws), when used as organic matter in traditional agriculture practices, are slow in composting and preserve soil health for a longer time by helping in maintaining soil structure and retaining water.
Even after the Green Revolution wiped them out, farmers kept on cultivating millets in marginal lands, where everything else would struggle to grow. They were a sort of insurance policy, in case major crops would fail or market fluctuations would not allow farmers to access them. All small millets are characterized by higher tolerance to environmental stresses (such as drought, salinity, light and heat) than major cereals and they are considered to be one of the most interesting climate-smart crops to ensure food security in the future.
All the small millets are a great source for iron, zinc and plant-based protein. At the same time, they are also gluten-free and have a high-fiber, low glycemic index and are able to cater to people with special dietary needs. Every small millet has different nutritional traits that makes him unique: finger millet, for example, has 3 times more calcium than milk while little millet has more than ten times the amount of iron than rice.
In Tamil Nadu, millets are known as the “women crops”, for traditionally they have always been (and still are) a women’s responsibility. If this in the past was more of a curse that kept women outside the market, today Malayali women are the indisputable protagonist of these grains rediscovery and the driver of the millet revolution. The increased interest of the market for Kolli Hills millets’ has contributed to giving more power to Malayali women and, thanks to improved processing technology, they are now food entrepreneurs actively involved in their communities’ decision-making processes.
The Kolli Hills Agrobiodiversity Conservers Federations is the ultimate solution that Malayali farmers adopted to safeguard their seeds and share good, regenerative practices. In the Village Millet Resources Centers, women farmers have the chance to undergo training on improved farming practices, value addition and nutrition, facilitated by the MSSRF, as well as exchange best practices, also with farther communities in other Indian states. New special roles within the community have born to ensure knowledge sharing.
Millets are particularly suitable to be cultivated in intercropped farming systems. In Kolli Hills, millet grows in mixed and alternate intercropped fields together with amaranth, legumes, and cassava, or in agroforestry systems surrounded by jackfruit trees, coffee bushes, mango trees, tamarind trees, neem, and peppercorns. The MSSRF is promoting agroforestry all over the region, designing agroforestry orchards that include millets and nutritious cash-crops (such as Jack, mango, Lemon, Coffee and Pepper) to help farmers with sustainable management of their lands while also improving their nutritional outcomes.
Youth empowerment is a crucial topic for rural areas in India, a country with more than 50% of its population below the age of 25 and with an urban population that increases every year due to internal economic migrations. KHABCoFED and MSSRF training in Kolli Hills are focused on giving young women the tool to build a better future and create economic opportunities that will also put a brake on youth migration to cities.
With the small processing units, the Millets Value Addition Center and the “Kolli Hills Natural Food” brand, these small millets are creating many sustainable jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities, not only for local farmers but all along the supply chain. Small Millets cultivated in Tamil Nadu (but also in Karnataka, Odisha, Madhyapradesh, and other Indian states where MSSRF and ICRISAT are working) reach the cities where young entrepreneurs are using them to create nutritious and delicious value-added products (e.g. Slurrp Farm) and tasty menus (e.g. Prems Graama Bhojanam) for city consumers.
The Federation manages a portfolio of 21 diverse landraces of millets belonging to different species (finger millet, little millet, foxtail millet, proso millet and Kodo millet), cultivated under different cropping systems and through a wise blend of traditional and modern practices. In the communities, there are also the so-called Custodian Farmers, farmers who have been empowered to play the role of biodiversity guardian angels in the community, supporting and managing seed and seed systems.
The ethnic food culture in Kolli Hills has been as rich as the diversity of millets that Malayali farmers have always cultivated. The rediscovery of small millets has contributed to a rediscovery of the food identity and now the younger generations are willing to learn traditional recipes taught by the elderly. One of the efforts of the MSSRF has been the one of documenting and spreading this traditional knowledge among the communities. This traditions are not only important to safeguard Malayalis’ food sovereignty, but they are also a great source of inspiration for the value-added products they make.