When I was a child growing up in suburban England, I thought millet was birdseed. I would see it in budgerigar cages at the local pet shop. I loved birds and longed to keep a budgie of my own, but because my mother didn't like caged birds, I was never allowed to have one. I was also very interested in wild birds and used, with more success, to pester my parents to buy something called Swoop, a mixture of seeds formulated specially to attract wild birds to gardens. Swoop mostly consisted of millet, niger, maize and sunflower seed chips. Regular visitors to our bird table were the workaday sparrows, starlings, robins, blue tits and blackbirds of Southern England, but occasionally exciting newcomers dropped in - bullfinches, nuthatches, mistle thrushes, redwings, goldfinches, and many others.
Millet is one of the few widely-consumed staple crops indigenous to Africa. Maize, potatoes and cassava are all imported from the Americas; bananas, rice and wheat originate from Asia and the Middle East, but millet, along with sorghum and yam, is an original African staple. I first consumed millet in the form of toh, a brown, sticky, slightly sour porridge, in the baking heat and dust of Ouahigouya in northern Burkina Faso many years ago. In Burkina - and across much of the Sahel - millet is an important crop. It is ground and cooked into breads or porridge, or, as I also discovered, it is fermented and made into a sour and cloudy beer.
Once harvested, millet keeps extremely well and is seldom attacked by pests. Its long storage capacity makes millet essential to food security strategies for poorer farming communities in Africa, especially across the Sahel. Plus, it is a remarkably resilient crop. In the words of ICRISAT, quoted in Securing the Harvest: "We are talking about a crop...... that grows where not even weeds can survive; a crop that has been improved by farmers for thousands of years; a crop that produces nourishment from the poorest soils in the driest regions in the hottest climates". Not only does it grow in the most marginal land, and keep well, but millet is nutritionally superior to maize and rice. It has a higher protein and oil content than most grains (especially important in Africa where oil crops in semi-arid ecosystems are scarce).
These features make it all the stranger that millet is one of the so-called "orphan" crops in sub-Saharan Africa. At least until recently, little attention has been placed by research organisations in Africa in developing hybrid millet varieties to increase crop yields, despite the enormous success of hybrid millet crops in India. This oversight is, however, being remedied. The photo above, taken from the Gates Foundation website, shows a field of improved millet in Western Kenya. The importance of millet was briefly discussed at the recent African Green Revolution Forum, whereupon my neighbour leaned towards me and asked "Tom, what exactly do you do with millet?" My response was quick as a flash. "You mill it", I said. It was hard to resist the pun.
It would be unwise, of course, to over-praise millet. Even in improved hybrid varieties, its yields are lower than most other staples. Drought-tolerance and hardiness has its price. While in field, it is also prone to attacks by many pests. The Quelea bird, in particular, is attracted to millet fields and its flocks can decimate crops in the space of a few hours. Hardly surprising, given my first acquaintance with millet. Birdseed.