KAURIKALA, India/LAGOS (Thomson Reuters Foundation): R iding a red electric scooter on country roads in eastern India, Sanjulata Mahanta has become something of a poster girl for millet since she stunned fellow villagers by planting the hardy grain - and making a profit - three years ago.
"People laughed at me and said I was growing grass," Mahanta, 35, said on a humid morning as farmers from Kaurikala village in Odisha state gathered under a tree for a millet workshop mixing history, cookery and climate change adaptation.
Mahanta has now helped about a dozen other women farmers to sow millets, long a staple in Asia and Africa before rice, wheat and maize started to take its place in fields and on menus about six decades ago.
But the forgotten crop is making a global comeback riding on its high nutritional value and ability to grow on arid land - crucial to its appeal as climate change fuels more frequent and intense droughts.
Sitting beneath the tree's shady canopy, awaiting a reluctant monsoon, volunteers chopped curry leaves and green chillies into a finger millet batter to make fritters as organisers trumpeted its dietary benefits.
When Bhanumati Mahanta, 62, sowed millets on her farm for the first time last year, she did not aim to tackle the problems posed by the region's increasingly truant rains but to ensure her late husband ate healthy food to help his diabetes.
"My husband had encouraged me to grow millets but he did not survive to see the harvest," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, digging a finger into the dry soil to transplant millet seedlings under a harsh morning sun.
"For decades, we grew hybrid rice using fertilizers and pesticides. We consumed the same rice. I now understand it was all toxic," she added.
A farming revolution in the 1960s saw policies supporting rice and wheat crops and their sale at guaranteed prices, which shrank millet's share in India's grain basket to about 6% today compared with 20% in the 1950s.
But millets are now being dubbed a saviour crop as climate change impacts - including harsher heat, drought and floods, which can slash harvests, spur new pests and accelerate food waste - become a major emerging threat to global food security.
Efforts to rethink food trade, aid and speculation are needed alongside ways to balance nature protection, farming and climate-smart dietary changes in a world where a growing number of people face hunger despite sufficient global food output.
YEAR OF MILLETS
With that in mind, the U.N. named 2023 as International Year of Millets and the humble grain was included in the White House's vegetarian dinner for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited in June.
In Odisha, where a state initiative is promoting the crop, it is also returning to kitchens.
A chef at the trendy Bocca Cafe in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, has been substituting rice with whole grain millet in a Mexican-inspired dish, while millet cookies are being served with tea in government meetings.
Back in Kaurikala village, Bhanumati Mahanta uses finger millet to prepare a sweetened porridge, replacing the rice that she had been using until now.
Odisha is not a top millet producing state in India or a big consumer like the western and southern states, but the Odisha Millet Mission that started in 2017 is being emulated in other parts of the country and has been hailed as an "inspiring example" by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Located on the coast of the volatile Bay of Bengal, Odisha is frequently hit by cyclones, floods and droughts that have impacted lives and incomes, fuelled migration and hunger.
The state's bet on millets aims to protect farmers' earnings, fight malnourishment and promote healthy food alternatives, as officials cite a "fork-to-farm" strategy to foster the consumer demand necessary for farmers to plant it.
"We have to inform the next generation that it is good for the environment and also for farmers," said Arabinda Kumar Padhee, principal secretary of Odisha state agriculture department who is heading the millet mission.
"We want to revive millets not only in farms but also on the plates of the consumers. We want it on their menu," he said.
Similar efforts are taking root in Africa's largest millet producing nation, Nigeria, where the government is including biskin gero, a couscous-like dish served with spicy fish sauce, in school menus for children in the northern region.
India, the world's largest millet producer, and Nigeria jointly held a cooking festival early this year in the capital, Abuja, showcasing the grain's use in popular recipes from both countries that share a common history of millet consumption.
In Nigeria, the government is promoting millet as a "healthy, sustainable and resilient" crop to fight hunger and malnutrition in a country where at least 25 million people are facing a food crisis, according to the United Nations.
"We know this crop is nutritious, smart and affordable. Everyone should know the value of this grain," said Olusegun Adekunle, professor of agriculture at the University of Ilorin in western Nigeria.
While a rice-based dish costs about 500 naira ($0.65) per serving, a portion of millet meal goes for just 100 naira, Adekunle said.
Ultimately, however, the success of such initiatives depends on consumers' willingness to swap fine wheat or rice flours for grainier millets - which remain unpopular in much of India, sometimes dismissed as fit only for animal fodder.
At a residential school in Odisha, children looked unimpressed by sweet laddu balls made from finger millet served to them as part of the millet project's outreach work.
"This is the first time probably that we're attempting to go back to old food habits. Now that is an uphill task with millets trying to replace staples of fine cereals, rice and wheat," said Sreenath Dixit, principal scientist with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics.
At the Select Fresh millet store in Bhubaneshwar, owner Sidhartha Rout started a cafe to showcase millet sandwiches and pastas to improve sales.
"It's difficult to convince people to eat millet. It needs a revolution," he said.
In Nigeria, too, millets hold a nostalgic place in culinary history, but reinventing traditional dishes to suit modern life - and palates - could be tricky.
At an event to promote the crop in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, school teacher Sekinat Lawal fondly recalled the millet porridge her mother made with fresh milk and date syrup, and Kunu, a creamy millet drink brewed from whole grains.
But Lawal, who has two children, said preparing such labour-intensive recipes would be a challenge, ruing the lack of ready-to-eat millet-based options.
"There are TV commercials for instant noodles with children eating at a table. I don't see the same for millet dishes," she said.
Some 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from Lagos, in eastern India's Keonjhar district, a millet cafe run by a women's self-help group in premises provided to them by the state is trying to plug that gap and generate appetite for the crop.
"We like this food. I even brought my family here to try these dishes," said bank worker Sankarshan Khatua as he tucked into a hot plate of millet fritters with a chutney.
"But I can't seem to find millets in stores to make these at home," Khatua said.
As governments promote the "superfood", the supply in Odisha is struggling to keep up with demand.
The state's millet production has doubled to 208,000 tonnes since the project's launch and it offers cash incentives of 26,000 rupees ($314) over a five-year period to farmers to grow the crop.
Still, for many farmers unfamiliar with millets, rice still seems a safer bet, said grassroots workers from WASSAN, the Watershed Support Services and Activities Network, a nonprofit implementing the millet project for the Odisha government.
Officials said production will soon catch up with growing demand as farmers see a readymade millet market - a hope shared by people working in millet processing units established as part of the state programme.
"Work stops intermittently so our payments fluctuate," said Yashoda Tanti, 42, who works at a millet processing facility in Keonjhar district where Kaurikala is located.
"We just want more work," she said.
As raindrops finally started to fall from the leaden monsoon skies over Kaurikala, Bhanumati Mahanta said she was determined to continue the millet-growing experiment that her late husband encouraged.
"Growing millets is hard work," she said. "But I'm doing this so my children learn that this is how you grow healthy food." ($1 = 770.0000 naira) ($1 = 82.6970 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll in Odisha and Bukola Adebayo in Lagos; Editing by Helen Popper. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit https://www.context.news/)