Making the most of Indian millets: Lessons from the International Year of Quinoa

  • Blog Post Date 20 October, 2023
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Pallavi Agrawal

Foundation for Economic Development

In the fourth post of the e-Symposium on ‘Carrying forward the promise of International Year of Millets’, Pallavi Agrawal reflects on the success story of quinoa, and how the International Year of Quinoa in 2013 was harnessed to market the crop’s health benefits and expand its cultivation to other countries and increase demand. She suggests some ways in which India can capitalise on the current millets buzz – including marketing it as a superfood, expanding production to satisfy to global demand, and investing in better processing and improving value chains. 

Millets are indigenous to India (and some other Asian and African countries), and current millet production far surpasses global demand – India’s millet production is around 12 million tonnes annually, while the total global imports are estimated to be only around 0.5 million tonnes. In other words, just 5% of India’s millet production is enough to capture the global market. Despite this, we are only the fifth largest exporter (by value) and the third largest exporter (by volume. This shows that we need to make changes that allow greater export success within the existing ecosystem, but also that we need to go beyond simply capturing the existing market, and grow the market. For India, therefore, the International Year of Millets 2023 represents an opportunity to boost global demand for millets, giving farmers and food processors access to much larger and wealthier markets. 

To take advantage of this opportunity, the government kickstarted its campaign in December 2022. Much was planned – task forces were constituted, blueprints prepared, recipe books dispatched, and millet-based menus are being served. Competitions on logos, taglines, quizzes, songs, comics, and documentaries with a millet theme were planned in 2023. Millet grains and millet-based products have been showcased at exhibitions in India and globally. On the supply side, India has identified more than 500 startups working in the millet-based value-added chain – the Indian Institute of Millets Research has incubated 250 startups under Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana-Raftar. 

However, India should use the momentum of this campaign as opportunity to address existing pain points and adopt learnings from previous success stories, particularly that of quinoa, one of the greatest food-marketing success stories in contemporary times. 

Learning from the quinoa success story 

Quinoa's successful transition from an obscure South American crop to a global health phenomenon was furthered with the UN's declaration of 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa. With millets seemingly on a similar trajectory, there are many lessons to emulate from its American counterpart. 

Millets and quinoa are alike in many ways. Both crops can be traced back to 3,000 B.C, were amongst the first to be domesticated, and are currently grown in ‘developing regions’. Millets are from India and Western Africa, and quinoa from the Andean region in South America. Both millets and quinoa are also considered superfoods as they are excellent natural sources of fiber, magnesium, and antioxidants. Furthermore, millets and quinoa are adaptable to different environments. They are good substitutes for water-intensive cereals and cash crops such as rice, maize and sugarcane. Millets can be grown in a variety of climatic regions with low rainfall for short durations. On the other hand, quinoa prefers slightly cooler temperatures and is altitude-hardy. 

With several similarities between millets and quinoa, the latter’s growth presents an interesting case study. Quinoa’s global domination can be traced back to two key steps that have made it the ‘superfood’ it is considered today. 

i) Focus on marketing nutritional benefits: A significant factor in quinoa's successful growth is the strategic efforts on building consumer perception of its nutritious properties. Quinoa’s health benefits are not only heavily marketed by producers, processors and traders alike but also endorsed by high-profile health and lifestyle influencers and recommended by credible institutions such as NASA. Thus, with its strong positioning as a healthy, natural food, quinoa grew its customer base. Quinoa is sold not just in its wholegrain form, but also with value addition as breakfast cereals and high-value ready-to-cook recipes. 

ii) Increase production, both variety and quantity: There was also an active effort in 2013 (the International Year of Quinoa) that contributed to an increased awareness of quinoa cultivation. With a focus on food security, higher nutritional value, and resistance to abiotic stress, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was directly involved in testing quinoa in 27 countries outside the Andean region. Shortly after the efforts of 2013, the number of countries that cultivated quinoa increased, from 40 in 2010 to 75 in 2014 (Bazile et al. 2016). 

These two steps resulted in higher demand from ‘richer’ nations. This is reflected in the increased global trade in quinoa – the UN Comtrade database reveals that it rose from US $95 million in 2012, to $201 million in 2013 and a whopping $385 million in 2014. 

While we should keep in mind the factors that worked for quinoa, it is important to note some differences. Quinoa was already on the rise before 2013; the number of countries growing quinoa increased from eight in 1980, to 40 in 2010, and included several developed countries. Furthermore, the global market had already been tried and tested, as quinoa had been cultivated and consumed in the US from the 1980s. This is not the case with millets, which are still in the nascent stages of global penetration. 

Expanding demand in line with current trends 

The demand for healthy food will continue to grow. India needs to jump on this bandwagon and consider marketing its millet products as nutritious ‘superfoods’. For instance, 61% of people in the UK have purchased a food because it had been labeled a superfood. 

The government may commission studies on the nutritional benefits of millets by globally recognised organisations. Increasing research and broadcasting the positive findings are key for India to be able to not only enter the existing global superfood supply chain, but also expand it. 

Moreover, following the vegan food movement, there is an increased popularity to move towards plant-based products that are high quality and sustainably produced. Such products are also typically sold in high-value export markets with more margins. India should also consider promoting green and ethical practices, and help producers and processors receive the necessary certifications for the same. 

Incentivising the expansion of supply 

Although India’s existing production is greater than global demand, domestic demand is also high – if millets are exported without increasing production, domestic consumption could be impacted. Although the productivity of millets has improved, the total area cultivated by millets has shrunk by half since the Green Revolution. Thus, India will also need to encourage production of millets. 

Furthermore, the procurement system for wheat and rice currently distorts the market, and the push to distribute coarse grains under the PDS has not gained momentum. In the long run, fixing this distortion of production will be needed for India to establish itself globally. Incentives for removing these distortions will have to be found, such as the Price Deficiency Payment Scheme or crop insurance schemes.

Increasing processing efficiency 

India will need to focus on increasing value addition by making the business environment conducive for investment in food processing and ensuring there are minimal leakages in the value chain. India should consider setting up and sharing infrastructure facilities to achieve scale, effectively implementing schemes (for instance, the Production Linked Incentive scheme includes millet-based Ready-to-Cook products), supporting the industry in R&D and skilling, reducing regulatory inconsistencies and increasing availability of credit. Reducing wastages will be also key for India to expand processing cost-effectively – currently, the farm harvest loss for bajra (or pearl millet) was 3.59% and the market loss was 0.78%, which appear to be low as is, but nonetheless provides an opportunity for improving food processing. 

India also has the opportunity to piggyback on the success of quinoa globally, especially in the processed-food segment. Millets can be substituted for quinoa; they are interchangeable with other grains in most recipes. More so, millets are cheaper than quinoa and if branded right, can give stiff competition to quinoa products. 

In conclusion, the International Year of Millets has the potential to be a game-changer for India’s food processing sector. There are several activities that the government has already planned – locally and globally. Still, we need more awareness and more processing to ensure we leave no stone unturned in our efforts. 

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