The year 2023 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of the Millet.
Resilient cereals like millet provide an affordable and nutritious option, and efforts need to be scaled-up to promote their cultivation especially at a time when climate changes has heightened the pressure on food security in Africa.
Millet farming can also play an important role through empowering smallholder farmers, achieve sustainable development, eliminate hunger, adapt to climate change, promote biodiversity and transform agri-food systems in Africa.
The EastAfrican in partnership with CIMMYT and ICRISAT has put together a special journal on this special topic. Please click on the file attached here for more details.
With right crops it is possible to achieve SDGs and Zero Hunger campaign targets
The journey to end hunger in the world is expected to terminate not too many years away. First, there are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that seek to end hunger by 2030. Then there is the campaign to attain Zero Hunger by 2050, which provoke a debate if the targets will be achieved or not.
Updated projections of the number of undernourished people suggest that nearly 670 million people will still be undernourished in 2030. This is according to a report titled, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 that was prepared by FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Food Programme (WFP).
The report states that, in 2021, an estimated 29.3 percent of the global population – 2.3 billion people – were moderately or severely food insecure, and 11.7 percent (923.7 million people) faced severe food insecurity.
The report presents the latest updates of the food security and nutrition situation around the world, including updated estimates on the cost and affordability of a healthy diet.
In this context, the UN’s designation of 2023 as the International Year of Millets gives the world the opportunity to consider millets as a potent weapon against hunger.
Some UN agencies point out that there is more than enough food to feed the world, but the problem is the distribution.
An agricultural scientist, Dr Harish Gandhi, Breeding Lead for Dryland Legumes and Cereals at CIMMYT's Genetic Resources Programme in Kenya, notes that climate change has an impact on production. Moreover, countries in Africa are experiencing population growth. So, there is pressure on land, yet not all lands are equally arable.
Apart from the general hunger, there is a hidden hunger which is about malnutrition (not having enough iron and zinc in our diet, for example). Women are anaemic in many parts of the world. Children suffer from wasting. They could be getting the calories need, but not the nutrition they need, argues Dr Gandhi.
He adds that, “by 2050 our goal is not only about giving the calories to the people but it’s really about giving nutritious food.”
Dr Gandhi asserts that, this is a challenge, “but it is a doable goal in my view. I think through this co-ordination and efforts between the nations and making sure that there is not emphasis on only one area of agriculture. So, agriculture is a system in which you work on different areas. So, there’s a lot of work that needs to happen at the regional level and also at the global level. This is really about coordination. I would not say this is something impossible to chew but are we moving in that direction? Yes, we are moving in that direction. But is there enough emphasis in all the areas? Probably not and I think that is where opportunity exists for all of us to sort of relook at the agenda we didn’t look at the regional level and international level.”
Clearly, eliminating hunger requires a comprehensive and integrated approach comprising improved crop productivity.
That means the use of improved varieties, good quality seed, mechanization, application of good agricultural practices, improved soil and water management, good pest and disease management. It also entails processing and value addition unlocking crop nutrition benefits, improved farming systems (sustainable crop production systems and good natural resource management). It should also entail building improved market systems providing good market opportunities, sustainable crop-livestock production systems and enabling environment through good policy. All relevant stakeholders must come together to make it happen.
Joining hands to breed highly productive varieties of dryland legumes and cereals
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is working with several national agricultural research and extension institutes in Africa to breed improved varieties of millets, which includes sorghum. CIMMYT in partnership with the national research institutions is establishing each nation’s research priorities, gaps and jointly working to breed improved varieties of millets and other dryland legumes and cereal crops.
Dr Harish Gandhi, Breeding Lead for Dryland Legumes and Cereals at CIMMYT’s Genetic Resources Programme in Kenya, notes that through collaboration, scientists are able to deliver highly productive varieties of millet and sorghum.
Gandhi observes that this is important because the seed’s genetic material accounts a major part of its productivity. The environment, such as rain and soil, and crop husbandry practices, such as fertilizer application and planting methods, account for the rest.
Thus, developing the new crop varieties through modern technologies is key to unlocking higher millet and sorghum yields, says Gandhi.
He explains: “So, really, what we are after is getting improved seed varieties in the hands of the farmer.”
To set research directions and ultimately boost demand, CIMMYT and national agricultural research and extension institutes are working together on understanding the key constraints faced by small-holder famers and value chain network for sorghum and millets. They are working with socio-economists, breeders and millers, the entire crop value chain, the millet and sorghum networks that will develop from the close collaboration of research bodies will help boost demands for these crops.
For more than 50 years, CIMMYT has been working on improving maize and wheat seed varieties, registering tremendous success over the years.
Since 2021, CIMMYT, a member of the CGIAR group, expanded their cropping systems work including research in dryland legumes and cereals that are key for food and livelihood security. The cereals are: pearl millet, finger millet and sorghum and the legumes are groundnut, chickpea and pigeon pea.
Says Gandhi: “These crops are quite critical for long-term food security and sustainability of our agricultural systems.”
CIMMYT is establishing collaborative breeding programs for these crops with partners in East and Southern Africa and in West and Central Africa.
It therefore began discussions with countries that are keen on promoting the production and marketing of millets and sorghums. In East Africa, these countries include Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
CIMMYT scientists have initiated consultations with the different national agricultural research programmes in East, Southern, West and Central Africa.
Gandhi and CGIAR colleagues aim to add value to existing, or participate in forming research networks in these networks, he says, “colleagues from the different regions in Africa would come together and identify what the priorities are, which areas we need to focus on and how do we really advance the research in those countries.”
He adds: “What CIMMYT is doing is, really coming together as a network of partners. We know there are never enough resources to do everything we want to do. But if we come together as a institutions with complementary strenghs, we can do a lot more, we can be more targeted and ultimately that will improve the output, that is seed varieties and also development of capacities of all network partners.”
CIMMYT and NARO recently hosted a workshop in Uganda for eight countries from East and Southern Africa to discuss market segments, needed characteristics of seed for which breeders should breed, for millets.
The forum looked at what the different priorities are on a regional level and how to coordinate and work together as one network in support of millets.
CIMMYT, explained Gandhi, is currently playing the role of coordination and catalyzing the formation of this network in East and Southern Africa, and also in West and Central Africa. Within East Africa, CIMMYT will conduct research on millets, sorghum and groundnut at the KALRO Kiboko station in Kenya and with network partners at their sites across the region. CIMMYT also works with ISRA, Senegal's agricultural research agency, at their research sites including Bambey and Thies, and with partners across West Africa.
Nutritious and climate-smart options all rolled into one crop
The United Nation’s declaration of 2023 as the International Year of Millets is timely. This is according to Dr Harish Gandhi, Breeding Lead for Dryland Legumes and Cereals at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center’s (CIMMYT) Genetic Resources Programme in Kenya.
Gandhi lauds the UN’s move, saying this shines a spotlight on millets, in these times of rapid climate change. Millets, are drought tolerant to compared to other crops.
“The declaration is such a timely thing,” declares Gandhi, who, in a wide-ranging interview, spoke about the importance of millets and why farmers should be supported to produce higher yields.
Noting that temperatures have risen in many countries over the last several decades, Gandhi says climate change “is no longer a distant thing.”
He adds: “This is already happening, and the millets are actually quite versatile in withstanding high temperatures and other climate extremes such as low rainfalls. We, therefore, need strategies that enable us to mitigate the impact of climate change.
Gandhi points out that millets are an option in the food security drive in the midst of climate change.
He says as research scientists working in agriculture, a major focus of their work is on how they can mitigate the effects of climate change by developing appropriate technologies or products. “Our aim is to use acceptable technologies to get the right seeds to the hand of farmers, thus diversifying their choices.” he said.
“Millets offer farmers options that are climate smart as they tolerate extreme weather better than other crops. Apart from that, millets are nutritious and have good grain fibre content. As we champion the consumption of these crops in the face of increasing urbanisation around the world, millets will help us manage many lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes and obesity.
Other than providing diversity in our meals, Gandhi also points out the dual value and use of millets and sorghum, as food for both households, and fodder for livestock.
He says: “Millets are critical part of mix for climate resilience, for food and as fodder for livestock.”
Gandhi believes there will be increased awareness about millets following the UN’s declaration of 2023 as the International Year of Millets.
He says an article titled ‘Biases in plant sciences’ that offers a critical analysis of plant science literature, reveals how millet and sorghum have not received enough emphasis in research. Only sorghum features in the list of top 20 plant species that have been studied intensively. This just emphasises the need to invest in these crops.”