Millets: promising crops for food production, job creation and climate adaptation

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Photo of millet stalks

Ripening millet stalks (© iStock).

For 2023, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is promoting millets - which include millet and sorghum - as nutritious, healthy, climate-resilient and environmentally-friendly crops. Also the Belgian development agency Enabel is paying attention to millet and sorghum. In Senegal, for instance, it wants to encourage the production and processing of these crops.

Icons of Sustainable Development Goals 2, 3 and 12

Every year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) puts a food crop, or another aspect of agriculture and nutrition, in the spotlight. This year, it is the turn of millets. Millets cover a diverse group of cereals - not so familiar to us - which include millet and sorghum, among others. It also includes fonio, a type of millet with small grains primarily grown in West Africa. Or even teff, a typical grain from Ethiopia and Eritrea which is grown there on a large scale.

Logo of the International Year of Millets


A whole host of beneficial properties

Millets are extremely nutritious and healthy. For example, they are packed with antioxidants, minerals (iron), protein and fibre. Moreover, they grow fairly easily under harsh climatic conditions and on poor, dry and even degraded soil. In other words, in exactly the same conditions where people are struggling to produce enough food, they can offer a solution. What's more, they don't need too many inputs such as manure, and are highly resistant to diseases and plagues.

Millets have been rooted in ancient cultures and ancestral traditions in Asia and Africa for centuries. But they have fallen somewhat out of favour there. As such, the FAO believed the time was right to highlight this special group of grains. Millets offer a lot of promise, both for small farmers who can generate a nice income from them, and for consumers who can eat them to boost their health. They also make the countries in question less dependent on widely used, often imported cereals like wheat.

In short, promoting millets can make an excellent contribution to at least 3 Sustainable Development Goals: SDG2 (zero hunger), SDG3 (good health and well-being) and SDG12 (responsible consumption and production). SDG8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG13 (climate action) also stand to gain.

Agropolis: a shift from exports to creating added value locally

The Belgian Development Cooperation is also paying a lot of attention to millets. For example, in Senegal, the Belgian development agency Enabel is supporting the Agropole-Centre project in the central region of Sine-Saloum, one of the 5 'agropoles' being built by the Senegalese government. A broad range of small and medium-sized companies - active in processing food products specific to the region such as cereals, salt and groundnuts - will be able to benefit from modern and sustainable infrastructure there.

In this regard, the agropole aims to create not only added value, but also additional jobs and better market access for producers. The ultimate aim is a shift from exports of primary, unprocessed products to making locally processed, sustainable and quality products available for the Senegalese population.

The focus is on both production - 210 family-run, small- and medium-sized farms - and processing - 110 burgeoning small farms - alongside several local agribusiness giants. Of the 110 small farms - most of which are women's groups - 72 are processing millet and sorghum into traditional foods such as couscous and flour. The agropole will allow them to store their grains more effectively, to avoid waste. And in processing workshops, they can use machines to grind, dry, hull the grains, and so on.

In addition, the small farms are benefiting from training on accounting and better processing techniques. They are also receiving support to secure micro-credits. These allow them to market their products more effectively, such as through an expanded commercial network and online sales.

Photo of a bag of semolina on a scale

Sankhal de mil = semolina based on crushed millet grains, finished product of an Enabel project (© Enabel).

Producer associations

In another project, Enabel is aiming to increase production of cereals, including millet and sorghum. In this regard, it will primarily support producer associations, both in terms of organisation and marketing. In addition, producers will be guided to produce more grains of higher quality. Among other things, this will include agro-ecological techniques (soil restoration) that are better adapted to a changing climate, in addition to better access to inputs such as quality seeds and fertilisers. Another key focus is regulation, for example regarding a required minimum percentage of millet in bread products. The project will start soon, with EU funding.

Sorghum and millet are still widely consumed in Senegal. In rural areas, small farmers consume 90% of their cultivated sorghum and millet themselves, often feeding their animals with it. In urban areas, it is mainly poorer groups that prefer these grains. The demand for derived products (fermented, processed with milk, etc.) is growing year on year.