A project supported by the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF) is overcoming key obstacles to increasing the production and consumption of hardy and healthy grains in India. These efforts are benefiting poor, rural, and food-insecure households in particular.
The opportunity: A new dehulling machine
Researchers in Canada and India have built an easy-to-use and affordable grain mill that could more than double the income that smallholder farmers in India make from millets. These highly nutritious grains, which come in several varieties, fetch a higher price than either rice or wheat.
The challenge: Nutritious but neglected grains
More than 35% of India’s rural population suffers from poverty and malnutrition, with women and children being the most affected. Yet, millets — a very nutritious crop — are grown on less than 18% of the land area that is capable of producing food grains.
Millets are a versatile crop that can grow well in regions with heavy rains, periods of drought, or low-quality arable land. They are also one of the healthiest whole grains: high in protein, fibre, and vital micronutrients. It’s no surprise that the government wants millets to play a bigger role in the economic development and health of rural residents, particularly women and children.
But there are challenges. Manually pounding millets to separate the hull from the seed is tedious and time-consuming work, usually done by women. This hard work, combined with millets’ reputation as “poor man’s food,” has resulted in fewer rural families — even the most food-insecure — producing and eating the grains.
Reducing women's workload and producing quality seeds
Field testing has begun in four villages on a portable and durable electric-powered mill that significantly reduces this workload, while virtually eliminating post-harvest losses. Manual dehulling methods often result in one-third to half of all seeds breaking. This is key, as clean seed sells for three to four times more than seed with hulls attached.
“The broken seeds turn into a flour-like powder that attracts insects or absorbs moisture that can lead to mould growth. Our machine is almost 98% efficient, with less than 2% of seeds broken,” says principal investigator and McGill University professor Valérie Orsat.
The mill breaks the hulls by squeezing them through rollers. The grain is then dropped through a centrifuge where it is carried with an air flow to separate the hull from the grain, allowing dehulling and separation to occur at the same time. Each machine produces about 2 kg of clean seed an hour.
Farmers also like the design because, unlike other machines, it can be easily adjusted for different millet varieties and sizes. Plus, the machine is easy to operate, requires minimum energy inputs, and little to no maintenance.
“Other machines on the market require a lot more technical skill to operate. Ours can be operated by anyone in the village without prior experience,” says Vijaya Raghavan, a senior McGill professor specializing in post-harvest production.
Higher yields and business opportunities for women
The grain mill is part of a larger project led by researchers at McGill, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, and the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization. The project is working with nearly 800 households in 26 different millet-growing villages across four states. It aims to increase the production, improve the processing, develop new market opportunities, and increase the consumption of regional staple food grains.
Building on the work of three previous projects supported by the Canadian International Development Agency, the research takes a whole-system approach to food security in India.
Through this new project, researchers have worked with women and men farmers to successfully identify and implement higher-yielding millet varieties and improved agricultural practices, such as fertilizer application techniques, seeding in rows, and the use of simple tools for weeding and hoeing. The project also found some farmers overseed in an effort to increase yields. The study showed they could achieve the same yields using the recommended amount of seeds and better agronomic practices.
Preliminary results show that these improved practices increased yields by at least 20% in the Jeypore region and 23% in the Kolli hills of Southern India. Farmers were also able to increase income by 15% from intercropping — the practice of growing two or more crops in proximity. The second year of field studies is currently underway.
Discussions have begun with local entrepreneurs to manufacture the grain mill, which would sell for between 6,000 to 8,000 rupees (CA$110-150) each to village cooperatives, farmer societies, women’s self-help groups, and the food-processing industry. In early 2013, the first commercial product was available for order.
Governments are also potential buyers. For example, the central government program, “Initiative for Nutritional Security through Intensive Millet Promotion,” is looking at setting up small millet-processing units in the state of Karnataka. In fact, the Director of Millets with India’s Ministry of Agriculture, JP Singh, was on hand in May at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Dharwad for a field demonstration of the latest prototype.
Lead researchers: Dr. Nirmala Yenagi (University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, India)
Dr. Israel Oliver King (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India);
Dr. Valerie Orsat (McGill University, Canada)
Duration: October 2010 to March 2013
Learn more: For more information on this project, contact Sara Ahmed, Senior Program Specialist, New Delhi, India (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Kevin Tiessen, Senior Program Officer, Ottawa, Canada (email@example.com).
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