DHRUVA JYOTHI, a home chef in the palace town of Mysuru in Karnataka, is known for his authentic Kannadiga vegetarian thali. As the journalist turned entrepreneur lovingly serves a sumptuous spread on a banana leaf, he proudly rattles names of luminaries who have savoured his food — yesteryear's cricket stars Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble, and a host of senior politicians and bureaucrats. However, it is not just the authentic Kannada food which attracts his patrons. It’s the ingredients. Jyothi’s thali is a tribute to a variety of ‘forgotten ancient Indian grains’, better known as millets. Rice is not the regular paddy, but ‘little millet’, rotis are made out of ‘jowar’ and the kheer comprises ‘foxtail millet’.

Five years ago, a major health issue forced Jyothi to undergo a lifestyle change. He eliminated rice, wheat and sugar from his diet and switched to the far more ‘nutritious’ millets. “I have always been a foodie and have loved to cook. I found enough ways of making millet-based food delicious,” says Jyothi, who claims millets have also helped him get rid of his ailments.

Millets come in two genres: ‘Major millets’ (jowar, bajra and ragi, which constitute 80% of millets grown in India) and ‘minor millets’ (foxtail, little millets, barnyard, kodo and brown-top). They are India’s very own superfoods and are considered far more nutritious than the South American quinoa or chia, which has become a fad among up-market Indians. Millets are also rich in carbohydrate, protein, dietary fibre, good-quality fat, and have substantially higher amounts of minerals, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, manganese, zinc and B-complex vitamins. Most importantly, they are one-fourth the price (a 1 kg pack of quinoa is priced at ₹500) of the imported grains.

Once called the ‘poor man’s diet’, the humble jowar, bajra and ragi are in vogue today. Not only are consumers buying millet flours, dosa mixes, cookies and millet milk, hospitality chains such as ITC Hotels have even created a millet menu for business centres and banquets. Bollywood celebrities and cricketers such as Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor and Virat Kohli are including bajra and jowar in their diet as well.

India is the world leader in millets production with a 40% share. The current market for millets, according to the Indian Institute of Millet Research, is $9 billion. It is expected to touch $25 billion by 2025. India produces 15.53 million tonnes of millets annually, contributing 10% to the country’s food basket. It exported close to $26 million worth of millets in 2021. The much-smaller branded millet food market is worth ₹500 crore, but with growing interest in millets, it is projected to touch ₹10,000 crore by 2025.

Millets have the backing of the Central and state governments. The Centre declared 2018 as the National Year of Millets and gazetted millets as ‘nutri-cereals’. It is incentivising rice, wheat and oilseed farmers to grow them, besides encouraging start-ups and large corporations to launch millet-based food products. Crops such as jowar, bajra and ragi now command a higher minimum support price (MSP) of ₹3,500 per quintal than paddy and wheat (₹1,800-2,100 per quintal). The government has also announced a Production-linked Incentive scheme, offering 10% incremental revenue on millet-based food products (the products need to contain 15% millets) over the next five years.

In the last one year, conglomerates such as ITC have procured 200 tonnes of millets, which have made their way into jowar, ragi and multi-millet mix flour under the umbrella of Aashirvaad Nature’s Super Foods. Britannia has launched ragi cookies and five-grain digestive biscuits under its NutriChoice brand, while Nestle India has launched a ragi variant of its baby food brand, Ceregrow. Marico has recently acquired a 54% stake in clean-label start-up, True Elements, which is largely into millet-based ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook breakfast and snack products, while Tata Consumer products has acquired a 100% stake for around ₹160 crore in Soulfull, a start-up that also focuses on millets.

Image : Photograph by Narendra Bisht

Hindustan Unilever, says CEO and MD, Sanjiv Mehta, will soon launch a host of millet-based formulations under the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) business (it houses brands such as Horlicks and Boost) which it acquired in 2019. “Millet is something which is going back to the culture and practices of the past. Today we have been able to understand the nutritional benefits. We are a big proponent of it. You will see a lot more happening.”

Breakfast cereal brand, Kellogg, has been using millets in a lot of its products such as muesli, chocos, but the company also uses a host of other grains along with millets. It had experimented with ragi chocos which didn't work, and according to Prashant Peres, MD, South Asia, Kellogg, the taste which played spoilsport. The company, says Peres, is working to get the right balance between taste and nutrition with millets. “When we get into the market we want to have a high percentage hit rate.”

“Deficiencies such as vitamin B12, vitamin E and even lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and heart problems are rampant today because we don’t include millets in our diet food,” adds Baba Ramdev of Patanjali.

Forgotten Grains

Be it a bajre ki roti in north and western India, kodo in the north or a ragi muddu (balls) in the south, millets had been an integral part of the Indian diet. A traditional Rajasthani thali, for instance, always has bajre ki roti, while in Maharashtra it is usually jowar roti. What used to be once a basic comfort food was relegated to being part of fancy thalis in restaurants and was not cooked on a day-to-day basis. Farmers in Karnataka, Odisha, Telangana or other parts of the country stopped cultivating millets 30-50 years ago.

Image : Photograph by Narendra Bisht

So, why were millets forgotten? Blame it on the Green Revolution in 1960 when the greater challenge was hunger, and rice and wheat cultivation turned out to be far more scalable and economical. Policymakers opted for paddy and wheat over millets. “We were short-sighted during the Green Revolution as nobody thought about nutritional security. The dry lands where millets were typically grown were used for cultivation of oilseeds, pulses, soyabean and maize. The real hunger was not addressed, there was micronutrients deficiency,” points out Dayakar Rao, principal scientist & CEO, Nutrihub, Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR), which is a subsidiary of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Over 60% of children and women in India suffer from malnutrition. The presence of 65% carbohydrates and 6–12.5% protein along with 1.5–5.0% fat makes millets energy dense and an ideal choice for nutrition.

Rao, who was entrusted with the duty of reviving millets over two decades ago, says per hectare cultivation of millets has reduced from 35 million in 1960 to 15 million in 2022. India grows 250 million tonnes (MT) of other grains (rice and wheat), while millets is just 16-18 MT. The production of jowar came down from 7 MT in FY11 to 3.5 MT in FY20, while that of ragi reduced from 2.2 MT to 1.2 MT, and small millets from 0.44 MT to 0.33 MT. Despite MSPs having doubled between 2010 and 2020, millets are being procured at ₹23-30 per kg versus rice and wheat (₹100–120 per kg), due to fractured value chains.

The good news, however, is that despite millet cultivation declining, per hectare yield has gone up due to better farming practices and launch of high-yielding crop varieties. According to an IIMR white paper, the yield has increased at a CAGR of 0.31% in the last eight years.

“Green Revolution is not a scientific success, it’s an economic success. Scientifically, it was a wrong thing to choose rice and wheat as they can be grown in specified, restricted conditions,” says independent scientist Khader Valli, popularly known as India’s ‘Millet Man’. Valli has given over 10,000 marginal farmers (who own arid land parcels) a new lease of life by training them to cultivate millets.

With the U.N. General Assembly declaring 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets’, there is a greater interest in reviving millets. It’s not going to be easy though – from farmers’ lack of enthusiasm to hesitance of corporates to scale up their investments, challenges galore. “Large corporations are not committing much. If large food companies are launching something they need to maintain supply across retail platforms. Raw material availability and shorter shelf life are huge challenges,” explains Shashi Singh, partner, PwC.

Mainstreaming Millets

Not only are millets ‘better for you’ in terms of nutrition, they also consume far less water than rice and wheat and are suited for arid lands. “The whole world can eat food free as you can grow millets everywhere. You need 1,000 litres of water for one kg of jowar, while positive millets (barnyard, foxtail, little, kodo and browntop) only need 300 litres. In comparison, rice and wheat need 8,000 litres of water,” says Valli. “You can save on transportation costs and in the long run drastically reduce carbon footprint as well,” he adds.

Rao of IIMR says 20 years ago there was not a single millet product in store shelves. The challenge, according to him, was more around creating demand rather than supply. Farmers have been growing millets for their personal consumption and for animal fodder. “I was put in the driver’s seat to create demand. We had to draw up a business plan. There were no incentives, no input or output subsidy. The MSP even today is only for major millets jowar, bajra and ragi,” says Rao.

His first task was to convince farmers to grow millets. Since most of the arid land used to grow millets was taken by high-value crops such as oilseeds and maize, convincing farmers to give space for millets whose yield was almost 50% lower was a challenge. Rao convinced them to do inter-cropping. “We built a case around ‘good for you’, ‘good for farmers’ and ‘good for the environment’.”

In recent years, IIMR has partnered with ITC’s agri business division, which has a network of four million farmers. “We did a pilot with ITC and got them to procure millets from farmers so that the latter could see how millets can be given a commercial colour,” explains Rao.

Apart from offering higher MSPs, the Centre has been encouraging states to set up millet missions to procure them from farmers and include them in mid-day meal schemes and anganwadi centres, besides making them a part of the public distribution system (PDS). The Telangana Millet Mission, for instance, has set up a target of increasing millet cultivation by 25% in the next five years from the current six lakh hectares. The state government’s research body, Research and Innovation Cycle of Hyderabad (RICH), has launched the ‘Agri Nutri Connect’ initiative through which it is encouraging farmers to grow millets and include them in the diet. “In India most women and children are anaemic. Apart from giving them food supplements, we are also encouraging farmers to go back to their traditional foods (millets). We are also telling them how diversifying their crops would give them healthier agri-production choices,” says Rashmi Pimpale, CEO, RICH.

The Karnataka government has launched the Karnataka Organic Farming Policy to enable the next-level development of millet farming. While minor millet farmers are given ₹10,000 per hectare, the policy also offers up to ₹10 lakh subsidy for millet-processing machinery.

Among state, the most proactive in terms of millet promotion perhaps is Odisha. Ever since the Odisha Millet Mission (OMM) came into existence in 2017, millets, especially ragi (which is called manidya locally and constitutes 85% of the millet crops in the state) is being grown in 19 districts. Ragi cultivation has doubled from 3.25 lakh quintals to 6.25 lakh quintals in the last one year. “The target is to move to one million quintals. We want to revive millets on the plates of consumers as well as farms of growers,” says Arabinda Padhee, principal secretary, department of agriculture and farmers’ empowerment, Government of Odisha. “The government, which earlier invested ₹60-65 crore a year for millet development, has now taken it up to ₹360 crore a year. It has allocated ₹2,808 crore for the next six years,” he adds.

OMM has set up close to 100 farmer producer organisations and 1,500 farmer self-help groups which are not just involved in millet cultivation, but also in value addition (such as manufacturing flour, millet-based snacks etc). Apart from procuring their produce at MSP, OMM has been incentivising farmers by giving them ₹3,000-10,000 per hectare depending on the agronomic practice. It is also collaborating with food start-ups and restaurants chains to mainstream millets.

Efforts of state millet missions are, however, piecemeal. Apart from Odisha, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, other state governments have not taken to millets in a big way. In fact, despite MSP for jowar, bajra and ragi being consistently on the rise, farmers are not too upbeat. Raja Sekhar, a 50-year-old farmer in the Mandya district of Karnataka, grows ragi on his four-acre land. While his income has gone up by over 40% in the past five years thanks to the increased market price of ragi, Sekhar claims he hardly makes profit. “The government is offering MSP for only half the produce. I have to sell the remaining in the mandi for which most often I don’t get a good price. Most of the money is pocketed by middle-men.”

Jayamma Ramagowda says not only the government pays MSP for half the produce, it doesn’t pay on time either. “I get a better price if I sell to private companies,” says the 70-year-old woman farmer, also from Mandya.

Rao of IIMR admits there are discrepancies. “The supply chain is weak. In fact, minor millets which are healthier are just 5% of the overall production. We need to work on them.” The reason jowar, bajra and ragi are grown more widely is because they are used as cattle fodder. Out of the 40 quintals of ragi that Jayamma grows on her field she uses 10 quintals for her family and another 10 as cattle fodder.

Taste and Texture

Among the biggest challenges in mainstreaming millets is its coarse texture and taste. By virtue of their smooth mouthfeel, rice and wheat have a distinct advantage. “The time it takes to cook millets is longer, and the colour of the food is not as attractive as rice and wheat. For a couple of generations, we have skipped millets so the taste never developed,” points out S. Sivakumar, group head, agri business division, ITC.

Kneading jowar or bajra flour is far more cumbersome and time-consuming. Wheat contains gluten, which helps in creating stickiness and binding. Jowar and bajra are gluten free, so one needs to add hot water to knead the dough so that the starch becomes sticky. “After positioning millets as a nutritious food, we tried to bring convenience and taste. Without gluten it’s difficult to make convenient food. We brought in indigenous technology to figure out how the starch can be manipulated,” explains Rao of IIMR. In addition to getting the flour right, IIMR also diversified into baking, flaking and extrusion. The most difficult part was to get the machinery customised. “The whole world grows rice and wheat and so there is a lot of technology available, here we had to discover ourselves. By working with food-processing technologists, we figured out the machinery that was suitable and we could make prototypes,” explains Rao.

A 100% jowar, bajra or ragi product is unlikely to attract Indian consumers obsessed with taste. Moreover, a jowar or bajra roti is brittle and hard and has to be consumed as soon as it’s taken off the fire. “People will buy for taste; they will come back for health if they feel it’s tasty. To have more consumers it is important to have taste. If you have a 100% millet product, taste will be a challenge,” points out Sreejith Moolayil, co-founder, True Elements.

Hyderabad-based 24 Organic Mantra has been trying to source varieties of jowar and bajra which are more palatable. “There are certain varieties of jowar where taste and texture are a huge issue, while there are some old varieties which are more palatable. We pick these varieties and get them grown. There’s a variety called marthandi, which has a wheat taste and you get softer jowar rotis,” explains Rajasekhar Reddy Seelam, founder, 24 Organic Mantra.

To get the taste right, most brands are blending millets with other grains. Kelloggs has ragi flakes which is a blend of ragi and oats. Similarly, Britannia’s ragi biscuits are a blend of ragi and wheat flour. According to ITC’s Sivakumar, R&D is still on to ensure a millet product which appeals to the masses. “We are looking at it as a mass-market consumer product, so we need to see what works for a large number of people and therefore what you need to alter.” He believes millets would take a while to become the centre of the plate.

A 100% millet product isn’t desirable, points out Dinesh Balam, associate director, Watershed Support Services and Associated Network, which manages the operations of the Odisha Millet Mission. Be it cookies or noodles, it shouldn’t have more than 25-30% millets. "Too much of millets could be counter productive. Instead of having 100% millet product, a combination of millets and pulses and other grains is more desirable."

The reason why millets could take longer to get to the centre of the plate is also because of lower shelf life. The shelf life of jowar, bajra or ragi flour, for instance, is barely 90 days as opposed to wheat which is close to 12 months. “With minor millets the problem of shelf life and storage is even more acute,” says IIMR’s Rao. A longer shelf life is critical for brands to build businesses of scale, which explains why most large corporations are yet to announce a big-bang entry into millets. No wonder most brands prefer to work with the major millets, ragi, bajra and jowar. True Elements, says Moolayil, opted for jowar as it is a thick grain. “If you have more circumference you can do more things, you can coat it, roast it or flake it. That’s why we have grown deeper in terms of getting farmers to grow jowar.” Also, jowar, he claims, is closer in taste to oats, which has gained acceptance among Indian consumers.

Prashant Parameswaran, MD, Tata Soulfull, says taste is not a point of conversation, but a point of parity. “If there is a biscuit, there is a certain taste I will expect. I can’t say just because it’s a millet, you need to compromise on taste. That’s where innovation and R&D comes in.”

The Start-ups

The bulk of the action in millets is happening in the start-up ecosystem. Most new-age businesses want to capitalise on rising consumer consciousness around health and fitness, and millets lend well to it. Entrepreneurs Meghana Narayan and Shauravi Malik founded Wholsum Foods to launch Slurrp Farm, a kids food brand in 2017, when they realised there was absolutely no healthy ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat products that toddlers could drool over. “When my daughter was born, I would see my grandmother pounding ragi for hours to make porridge. That’s when we dug into recipes from our grandmothers’ kitchens and ingredients like millets,” says co-founder Narayan. The close to ₹100 crore brand has, in the past five years, created options for kids ranging from cereals, dosa mixes, cakes and noodles and vermicelli. Wholsum Foods is now set to launch its second brand, Mille: A Supergrain Co, millet-based food for people of all ages.

For True Elements, the vision was to set up a clean label food brand where it wouldn’t need to hyper-process its ingredients. Though the idea was to offer consumers ethically sourced, nutritious food products, co-founder Moolayil says the reason for choosing millets was pure economics. “If you source one kg of oats, the cost is 100% more than millet. We decided on something next to oats which would be half the cost but when it comes to nutritive value, it’s better.”

The health and wellness aspect has evoked the interest of private equity and venture capital funds to invest in millet-based businesses. “Anything which is ‘better for you’ or ‘good for you’ becomes a good story in terms of brand ethos and is attractive for investors,” says Kanwaljit Singh, managing partner, Fireside Ventures. The venture fund has invested in brands such as Slurrp Farm, Yoga Bar and Kapiva, all of which are in the wellness space.

Though IIMR has signed MoUs with all leading food companies to accelerate its mission to popularise millets, Rao is a firm believer in the power of entrepreneurs. In 2017, IIMR launched an excellence centre, allowing start-ups to incubate their businesses. Start-ups were allowed to use the production facilities of IIMR, with the latter also helping them to market their products. IIMR also offers ₹5 lakh in funding to beginners and ₹25 lakh seed funding to slightly mature businesses. “In the last six years, we have supported close to 700 start-ups and disbursed ₹7.7 crore funding,” says Rao.

Given the complications millets have around taste, texture, shelf life and even availability, large companies are taking time to embrace them wholeheartedly. “Industry will wait and watch and take time to adapt. Start-ups are where the action and investments will be,” says Anand Ramanathan, partner, Deloitte.

Image : Photograph by Sanjay Rawat

Cautious Optimism

There is obvious excitement about the category. In fact, Patanjali’s Ramdev considers millets a ₹100,000 crore opportunity. But in terms of a product pipeline, none of them has a story to tell. A few years ago, lack of scale and challenges such as low shelf life and taste were a dampener. HUL, for instance, had launched a range of millet breakfast mixes under the Ayush brand in 2018, which was pulled out due to lack of demand. The pandemic, and the health and wellness trend that has emerged due to it forced them to invest in R&D and almost all food majors claim that they have big-ticket plans.

While Nestle India’s first move into millets is a ragi variant of its infant food brand, Ceregrow, chairman and MD Suresh Narayanan says the plan is to look at millets holistically. “Ceregow is one part of it but application of millets in snacking, breakfast and the whole space is also being explored. There is a larger opportunity for using technology and R&D to develop products. It will be across portfolio, wherever it is relevant.”

Marico is building its entire food business on the health and wellness platform. Starting with the launch of Saffola masala oats, it has moved on to oats noodles under Saffola Oodles and last year ventured into the plant protein category with the launch of soya nuggets. The ₹9,000-crore FMCG major plans to launch an entire range of millet-based products later this year, says Sanjay Mishra, COO, Marico. “Millets are both the centre of the plate as well as the side of the plate and that makes it interesting. It is affordable and can be offered to consumers at a good price-point. Millet is a huge opportunity,” says Mishra. The company has also acquired True Elements to play at the premium end, while Saffola will cater to the masses, he adds.

Britannia, on the other hand, launched its NutriChoice brand of biscuits over a decade ago and part of the portfolio has been multigrain biscuits containing ragi. Though NutriChoice has grown into a ₹1,000 crore brand, it is in the past couple of years that the company has heightened its focus on millets. It recently launched Nutrichoice Diabetic, which is ragi biscuits combined with other fibres.

“Getting product and texture right is a huge R&D challenge for us. We have partnered with IIMR to understand the basic science and get technical insights on product development,” says Amit Doshi, chief marketing officer, Britannia Industries. The biscuit major is looking to build a larger snacking portfolio beyond biscuits on the back of millets.

Corporates such as Aditya Birla Group are also considering millet cultivation and processing as part of their CSR activities. Atal Incubation Centre-Nalanda (AIC), a government-funded start-up incubation centre, has partnered with Utkal Alumina (a subsidiary of Hindalco) to set up a millet flour processing plant at its facility in Odisha’s Raygada district. “They want to provide employment to villagers in and around their facility. Since Rayagada is a millet belt, they want to procure millets and invest in a unit to produce millet flour,” says Devjyoti Mohanty, CEO, AIC-Nalanda.

Image : Photograph by Narendra Bisht

Miles to Go

Millets, says Sivakumar of ITC, ticks all the boxes of a next-gen agriculture crop. It consumes less water and can be grown almost anywhere. It is good for the environment and prevents natural resource depletion, besides being highly nutritious. What is holding it back is a lack of awareness. “The percentage of households which consume millets is in single digits. Assuming awareness improves, the next barrier for consumption is at the point of consumption. There is no breakthrough yet on shelf life” he explains.

Companies, says Sivakumar, need to adopt an integrated approach which would tackle supply, processing and demand creation together. “Demand hasn’t gone up in an end-user centric manner. Market prices have increased 70-80% in recent years, but that could be because of government procurement. If the yield improves and there is no corresponding consumption-side story, prices will suffer and it will be a non-starter. At the same time if one doesn’t tackle the challenge of shelf life, products and formats will not be available widely,” he explains.

Nestle’s Narayanan agrees that backward integration is the way to go. “At the moment our requirements are relatively small but if it becomes a big opportunity, then why not. It will also ensure that ragi farmers get a better price, and increase the diversity of crops.”

The mission to mainstream millets has begun, but in order to make it truly mass, a considerable amount of ground still needs to be covered.

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