Meet the Millet Man

 Millets face low consumer awareness and demand, weak value chains and low interest from research organizations as well as commercial players. This lack of interest is surprising given that millets have high nutritional benefits, mitigate risk for farmers under adverse weather conditions induced by climate change. They are good for the environment as they require less water and need very little external inputs. Farmers are turning the tide by addressing the issues that plague millet promotion.

As we walk towards the fields we see a shed under construction and Mr Veer Shetty is telling us about his future plans – “I plan to provide employment to at least 100 youth in this cluster of villages through our traditional crops – millets and sorghum – and attract them back to agriculture.”

We are in Gangapur village, Sangareddy district in Telangana, with Mr Shetty. He has transitioned from a farmer to an entrepreneur setting up his own food processing plant, producing millet-based ready to eat food. This processing unit is expected to be ready over the next three to four months. He also has a shop-cum-restaurant, SS Bhawani Foods, in Hyderabad, selling millet based products like bajra roti, jowari roti, multi-millet laddu, pooranpoli, millet malt etc. With a daily customer base of 200-300, Shetty is encouraging urban consumers to eat healthy food, while inspiring farmers to grow millets.

Shetty is the eldest of three brothers. After having studied upto Class X, he had to start earning for the family. He began working as a driver. In 2005, he turned his attention to sorghum cultivation. In 2007, he opened a small shop in Hyderabad selling jowari roti. At that time there wasn’t much awareness among the people on the benefits of sorghum and millets, so the venture failed. He decided to move his shop to another locality where he started getting more customers, especially diabetes patients. He then set up SS Bhawani Foods to operate on a larger scale,complete with an industrial scale kitchen and a small restaurant. Apart from serving millet-based meals, the restaurant aims to educate people on the nutritional benefits of millets through posters adorning the walls.

Shetty designed the roti making machine and got it manufactured in Bangalore which can make 500 rotis per hour. He sells 2,000 – 3,000 rotis per day through his outlet. From this outlet, items like dry rotis, which have a shelf life of 6 months, are exported to Australia and pooranpoli is exported to Dubai through a food export agency. Around 2,000 rotis and 300-400 pooran polis are exported every month.

In 2016, Shetty started the Swayam Shakthi Agri Foundation to work with millet famers. Through the Foundation, he supplies inputs to farmers, trains them on cultivation practices for getting better yields, buys back the produce, offering premium price. The Foundation in collaboration with MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) reaches 500 tribal farmers in Koraput district, training them on how to make various millet products such as laddu, sevaiyan, chiwda, roti, etc. They have also been trained on various aspects of farming such as preventing diseases, techniques of rainwater conservation, preparing vermi compost, aerobic compost, improving soil organic matter,various sowing techniques, etc.

Apart from serving millet-based meals, the restaurant aims to educate people on the nutritional benefits of millets through posters adorning the walls.

Collaborating on another project with the Indian Institute of Millets Research, Shetty is working with 1,000 farmers in 8 villages of Sangareddy district, Telangana. “To buy a kilogram of seed, a farmer has to travel to the town. Even then, he has no idea of the quality of the seed he purchases. We supply quality seeds to farmers at their doorstep. We even advise them on what crop to plant every season taking into account the market prices, the glut and shortfalls in the market.” After procuring from farmers, the produce is graded for food, feed and brewing purposes. The produce suitable for human consumption is retained for further use.The remaining produce is sold to seed companies, livestock feed companies, and distilleries for ethanol production.

Elaborating on the health benefits of millets Shetty says, “Sixty percent of my customers are young professionals from the information technology (IT) industry who we see are more prone to health disorders such as obesity and diabetes. The remaining customers are middle-aged or elderly people with health disorders. A small fraction is the health conscious segment of consumers. Due to rising incidence of lifestyle diseases, doctors are advising patients to switch to millet based diets”, he adds.

Due to the low returns, farmers are reluctant to grow millets. “Promoting millet consumption among urban consumers will increase demand, thus encouraging more farmers to switch to cultivating millets”, feels Shetty.

The government also can do a lot – promote millet consumption in canteens situated in government office complexes like Secretariat; ashram schools run by the tribal welfare department; residential schools like Jawahar Navodaya schools and those run by the social welfare departments of different states; also, in mid-day meal scheme. It can promote entrepreneurship to set up processing and sales outlets in urban areas. “Some state governments like in Tamil Nadu and Telangana provide subsidised meals to people which is usually rice and sambar. Millets can be substituted for rice,” says Shetty. He feels that the government should encourage farmers to grow millets on at least 10 percent of their land along with other crops that they are growing. Food processors can be encouraged with tax breaks and buy back support from the government, to supply to government canteens, hostels, etc.

“People would like to consume millets, but they are not easily available,” he adds. Back in Gangapur village, his food processing unit is the foundation of a larger dream. A warehouse, a farmer training centre, demo plots, organic farming and many other initiatives are waiting in the wings to give life to Shetty’s dreams. From this unit, he plans to supply millet based products to urban consumers, various urban outlets and to overseas markets. “I want to reach consumers all over the world who are looking for a healthy lifestyle and thereby, benefit my farmer friends”, says Shetty.

Amit Chakravarty
Chief of Staff to the Director General
Patancheru 502324 Telangana, India

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