Bajre ki roti with generous helpings of ghee is a ubiquitous part of a Rajasthani or Gujarati thali, in Maharashtra it’s jowar roti with spicy, tangy chilli pickle which any hardcore Maharashtrian would love to bite into. Down South, one would rarely come across a child who hasn’t grown up eating ragi porridge. So, what’s common between bajra, jowar and ragi? All of them are millets and they are high on protein, fibre and carbohydrates. In modern parlance, they are classified as superfoods. India, has close to 80 varieties of millets, in fact, every state has a millet that it can boast about. Since 2023 has been declared as the International Year of Millets, the Government of India in Budget 2022-23 has announced that it would patronise millet cultivation as well as companies that manufacture value-added food made of out millets.
For all those of us who don’t know much about millets or are just beginning to embrace millet cereals or granola bars on the advice of dieticians, millets have been a part of India’s food history for centuries. It was during the green revolution way back in the sixties when hunger was the biggest concern in India, that rice and wheat cultivation was given preference over millets, as the idea was to have crops that could be widely cultivated and that would give high yield. “Millets took a backseat during the green revolution. There was a minimum guarantee for rice and wheat and there was nothing offered for millet. Since we were a hungry nation, nutrition was secondary. Today, we need both food and nutrition and that’s the reason millets are being given importance,” explains Sreejith Moolayil, COO & co-founder, True Elements.
Though people in rural areas still prefer to have bajra or jowar roti or even ragi, none of the large food companies have found it lucrative enough to launch branded jowar or bajra atta. In fact, Hindustan Unilever did test market ready-to-eat millet breakfast mixes but it eventually pulled out as there weren't too many takers. Cereal-makers such as Kellogs do have millet variants, but that’s an extremely small part of their offering. All the action in the superfoods space is happening in start-ups or new-age companies such as True Elements, Slurrp Farm or Organic India. Started by two mothers, Slurrp Farm, is a kid’s food brand which has a range of toddler cereals, dosa mixes, pancake mixes, noodles and vermicelli, all made out of millets. “When we became moms there was nothing healthy that was available on the shelf that we could feed our kids. There was a clear opportunity in the market,” says Meghana Narayan, co-founder, Slurrp Farms.
Almost 60% of the products sold by True Elements contain millets. “We have a jowar breakfast mix, we even have ragi dessert mix,” points out Moolayil, who says that the reason most upper-class Indians are willing to embrace millets is because all of them are gluten free.
Today, 1kg ragi costs ₹70, as opposed to 1 kg of wheat which is ₹24-25. Millets are cheaper to grow and need far less water than wheat or rice. Despite that they are expensive as farmers are not as incentivised to grow them. “The government has to keep increasing the MSP of millets by ₹100 every year, only then the farmers would be incentivised. They also need to invest in generating demand. Once demand for millets picks up and the farmers start getting incentivised they will automatically start cultivating more. Even the bigger food companies will jump in once there is adequate demand,” says Siddhant Bhomia, co-founder, Krishi Network. He says the MSP of bajra and jowar have gone up by ₹100-118 in the last one year, as opposed to paddy which has increased by ₹72. “The government offering a higher MSP for millets is a recent feature,” says Bhomia.
Most modern retail stores and ecommerce platforms offer a host of snacks, breakfast mixes and cereal made out of quinoa. Again, a millet, quinoa originates from Peru. The Indian government’s effort is to be able to give Indian millet-based superfoods to the world. In fact, Organic India, says MD Subrata Dutta, has launched branded organic millets for the domestic market and some international markets. “This is a pilot project to understand the acceptance and the potential for this whole grain category. We have launched the foxtail, little, barnyard, kodo and brown top variants which are more renowned for their high nutritional and energy content.”
So, will branded millets or millet-based foods ever become mass? The start-ups believe it will continue to be niche for a while since most millets have regional characteristics. “South India doesn’t understand bajra and north doesn’t understand ragi. This makes scale limited and will not make sense for the biggies to enter the space. It will be start-ups which will be able to cater to regional nuances,” believes Moolayil of True Elements. But he doesn’t rule-out making acquisitions in this space. In fact, Tata Consumer Products has acquired Soulfull, which has a wide portfolio of millet-based products. “Its just a matter of time when biggies will rule this space,” says Bhomia.
According to Narayan of Slurrp Farm, all good things take a while to happen. “It is easier to sell maida and sugar and that’s not going to go away. Our immediate task should be to create demand for ancient grains. I am not saying that we should stop eating rice or wheat, but we can certainly move towards having more diversity in our meals. Even if we can include bajra or ragi in our diet once a week, it will help generate demand.”