Decentralized small millet processing

Collaborative efforts made by nutrition conscious communities has helped to revitalise, cultivate, process and promote consumption of millets in three geographics in India

Millets are small grains that grow in rain fed farms across the world. They are a loosely defined bunch of crops that were cultivated and consumed in fairly large quantities in different parts of the world. With the increasing globalization of farming and food, a significant drop has been seen in both cultivation and consumption over the past few decades in almost all countries.

In India, millet cultivation is becoming popular as more people are looking forward to them in their nutritious diets. Though the sown area has increased slightly, focus on their cultivation, processing and consumption is being discussed by policy makers and the public too owing to their ease of cultivation and richness in nutrition.

There are two types of millets in terms of their physical morphology – ‘naked grains’ and ‘husked grains’. Naked grains include Finger Millet, Pearl Millet and Sorghum; Husked grains include foxtail, Little, Kodo, Proso, Barnyard and Browntop millet. During the processing operations, conscious efforts need to be made to retain the nutritional components with least damage.

Naked grain processing: The naked grains do not have a husk and processing consists of cleaning, grading and grounding them into their flour form. The primary challenge is reducing the rancidity rates to increase nutrition retention and shelf life. This requires minimising the heat generation during the flour milling process. Another solution that communities have evolved over time is to process only limited quantities so that the flour will be consumed before the rancidity becomes too prominent. While finger millet and some traditional varieties of pearl millet and sorghum have very low susceptibility to storage pests, the newer varieties developed in the recent past are seen to be more prone to pest damage. Diligent size and density grading are simple techniques to clean damaged grains and prepare the material for grinding into flour, grits or any other consumable form.

Husked grains processing: The husked grains need to be cleaned, graded and dehusked. Dehusking is also referred to as hulling. After dehusking, further cleaning and grading is required so that the brokens and the unhulled grains are separated out. The husked grain morphology, and therefore, its processing is a little more complex. The outer most layer is a hard shell called the husk. Just within the husk layer is a thin layer of bran that flakes easily. Within the bran layer is the endosperm – often referred to as the rice kernel. In one concentrated point in the grain, within the husk, embedded in the endosperm but breaking through the bran layer is the grain germ. The husk is rich in cellulosic fibres and cannot be digested by humans. So dehusking, or hulling, to remove the husk is an essential step in processing husked grains. The bran layer is rich in minerals, fibres and essential fatty acids. A good process would retain as much of the bran as possible. As the bran layer is rich in fat, it is also important to minimize the damage to the bran layer in order to reduce the rancidity rates. The germ is rich in proteins and we need to ensure that it is retained and not lost during the processing. The endosperm is the most dense component and can break or shatter when the grain moisture or the relative humidity in the air is high during processing. So it is important to dry the grains to below 12% moisture content and as far as possible, process the grains on warm or cool dry days.

Community led processing initiatives – Cases of Processing units in three geographies

This article highlights process highlights of on-going efforts in 3 villages in India. Requisite training events to local communities were conducted to guide cultivation as well as (re)introducing millet based dishes, most critically processing them locally, as illustrated in the following geographies. In each of these places, the backgrounds are different. Local organizations have been working with the local communities for different periods of time. They are focussing on increasing farm production and in house consumption of millets, especially those grains that were prevalent in the food cultures of their respective communities in the past.

1. Teertha village, Kundhgol taluk, Dharwad district, Karnataka Teertha village has undulating landscape with rich black soil. It is part of a historically major production centre of Little millet. The initiative is a collobarative effort result of Indian Council for Agricultural Research, through the Indian Institute for Millet Research, KVK Hulkoti, Gadag District, Sahaja Samrudha, an NGO working on conservation and food equity and SELCO Foundation. Sahaja Samrudha, active with communities since 2018, started working with IIMR, secured ICAR support in setting up processing unit with KH Patil KVK in Hulkoti, Gadag as the nodal agency. The process flow for the small millet processing, machine specifications, training and capacity building were provided by The Millet Foundation. SELCO Foundation provided solar power so that consumer side processing machines can run independent of grid power availability. Sahaja Samrudha coordinated the various collaborative efforts. Every season, dozens of truck loads of Little millet grains get shipped out of the region to processing centres in far away places. There is lot of drudgery involved in manual processing of Little millets. Though cultivated continuously, there is a break in consumption in these communities. This issue was addressed by setting up a local processing unit.The processing unit is run by the Bibi Fathima Swasahaya Sangha (BFSS), a Self Help Group, in partnership with an Devadhanya Krishi Utpadakara Sangha, an FPC set up in 2022. The BFSS consists of 14 women from Teertha village who have come together under the leadership of Smt. Bibi Jan Halemani. The FPO, registered a few months ago, links the processed produce to the local markets. Thus, setting up a community oriented small millet processing unit was necessitated in this area. Since it was set up, the Bibi Fathima Swasahaya Sangha millet processing unit has processed about 5 tons of Browntop, Foxtail, Little and Proso millet. About 80% of their production has been sold in   markets and events, given their access through the various organizations and their location. Efforts to increase local consumption is one of the focus areas of the initiative in the upcoming months. The challenges include guiding women to get familiar with processing principles and gaining confidence to operate processing machines and convincing the younger members in the communities about the nutritional value of the bran.

2. Attapady of Palakkad District in Kerala: This was set up in late 2021 and is managed by members of the local community with support from Thanal, an NGO based in Thrissur and Thirvanantapuram. Attapady is a small town nestled in the eastern edge of the Western Ghats in Palakkad district of Kerala. Thanal started working on millets with the community in Attapady in 2019. The Adivasi communities in these parts have been cultivating and consuming millets for many years now. The villages around Attapady have a weather pattern that results in uncertain rainfall and it seems quite natural that millets have been a part of people’s diets. The Little millet varieties grown in these hills are much smaller than the varieties grown in the plains. Increased drudgery in cleaning, grading and dehusking the Little millets had resulted in a drop in consumption and increased vulnerability to changes in the rainfall and weather patterns. Pigeon pea is also grown locally and there are not too many flour milling options nearby.

The Community Centred Small Millet Processing Unit was set up with support from the Pesticide Action Network, India through a CSR grant from UST a multinational IT company. The process flow for the small millet processing, machine specifications, training and capacity building have been provided by The Millet Foundation. Also, a dal milling machine and a flour mill have also been installed in the unit. However, owing to various reasons, the unit was under utilized, in spite of  several expressions of interest from organizations. In late 2022, a second round of training was conducted to prepare a team of local women to operate the machines and the staff from the local Thanal office to supervise the operations of the unit. Local community are keen that the unit is fully operational as they have fond memories of their food cultures involving Little Millet. The continued cultivation supported by processing unit presents an opportunity for communities and local organizations to facilitate return of millets into people’s diets.

3. Pipri village, Mishrikh Block, Sitapur district, Uttar Pradesh : The unit established here is called सेहत का बारदाना Sehat ka baardaana (SkB) – which roughly means the toolbox for health. This is the  youngest among the six such units that have been set up so far.

SkB is run by a coalition of Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (a farmer labour collective), Healthy Awadh Foundation (a not for profit company set up u/s 8 of the company’s act) and Sangtin, an NGO based out of Sitapur. Even though SkB is the most recent processing unit, Sangtin in fact has been working with communities on promoting millets in farmers’ fields and in their diets since 2014. The local communities in Sitapur district have strong memories of cultivating and consuming millets. While it is Kodo millet in a few remote villages in the district, it is Foxtail millets, in some others. However, majority of the families have not seen millets in their diets or on their fields ranging from a few seasons to a few decades.

Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangthan (SKMS), a 6000 members strong local farmer labour collective spread over 12 blocks of Sitapur and Hardoi districts of central UP, initiated a new movement in the year 2015. Their persistent work led to discovering those families that continue to cultivate millets using seeds that have been passed on to them by their respective families suitable for local soils and agro climatic conditions. Though new seeds from other parts of the country were introduced through the initiative, only a few farmers cultivated them successfully. Within 2 years, it was clearly evident that local seeds had greater acceptability. Kodo Millet, Foxtail Millet and Barnyard Millet are  regularly cultivated in rainfed farms of about 500 farmers. Concerned with high levels of malnutrition in the community, the farmer labour collective focussed on farming with a perspective of food and nutritional security. It had two faces – one, on farm initiatives, two, promoting consumption of millets in the villages.

Taakati Khana Shivir, Energy Food cook outs, were conducted in different villages over a 3 year period time to reintroduce and emphasise the need to include use of millets, pulses, and oil seeds in their menus and diets. The nutritional benefits of mixed cropping produce, as well as that of eggs and meat, was highlighted. Cost benefit analysis of food practices was done.

Processing unit at Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh

As people started cultivating and consuming millets, one of the Sangathan members talked to a paddy rice miller and convinced him to hull some millets. The small scale miller used a paddy polisher to dehusk the millets. Using hand sieves with different sieve sizes brought from Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh, and local winnowing pans, the members of the Sangathan started to clean and grade the grains before hulling and cleaned the post hulling output as well. As can be expected the quality of the hulled millet rice was compromised, but it helped the community improve their access to nutrition with a capital expenditure that was a fraction of what setting up a processing unit would have otherwise cost. In 2020, a good 6 years after the initiative was started, the decision to set up a small scale mechanized processing facility was approved by the Sangathan – thanks to philanthropic funding secured by Sangtin, technical assistance from The Millet Foundation and the ground support from SKMS. Since being operational from six months, about 2.5 tons of the procured grains has been cleaned at the SkB. About two thirds of the 0.5 ton of millet rice has been sold within the local community, and the remaining third has been marketed to individuals and organizations in Lucknow and other parts of UP.

Thus, in these three different geographies initiatives are underway to revive millet production and consumption. These include, developing skills by training local men and women on processing millets in a way to retain nutritional components as much as possible, and reintroducing millet based foods back into their diets. Most of these involved farmers are either small and marginal or those keen on practising changed farming and food system. Covid 19 Pandemic did hamper planned timelines for training and setting up of processing units, but, communities rode through the difficult times keen on improving their nutritional levels. There are other challenges being faced too – for instance, finding suitable talent in the local communities to run the machines, issues such as GST on machines for small scale decentralized processing and on the products from such units.  The primary focus of the mainstream has been on market centric approach, however to usher sustainable food systems, what needs to be strengthened is people centric decentralised community owned processes.

Over the next few years, many such processing units as illustrated need to be encouraged. They would serve as torch bearers of a decentralized economy, strengthened innovative ecosystem and local solutions to improved access to nutrition.

Dwiji Guru

Dwiji Guru

The Millet Foundation

Saideep Apartments,

41, Govindappa Road,


Bengaluru 560004


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