Dinesh is creating vibrant local millet economies, by addressing significant gaps in the millet value chain.
Dinesh is creating vibrant local millet economies, by addressing significant gaps in the millet value chain.
Dinesh is creating the enabling environment to retrieve millets, a nutritious substitute to rice and wheat, and encourage their consumption as a staple food in India. By pioneering a much-needed processing system for millets, he is creating the capacity among farmers and micro-entrepreneurs to make available quality, nutritious, whole grain millet to the consumers at scale.
Through his work, Dinesh is leverging agriculture to meet the twin objectives of enhacing incomes and improving nutrition. Environmentally adaptive and drought tolerant, millets provide immense opportunity to revilatlize the rainfed farming economy. Further, as highly nutritive grains they offer a concrete solution to minimize the wide spread nutritional deficiency. By plugging the critical gap in the millet value chain, namely the capability to process and distribute all forms of millets, Dinesh is not only making rainfed agriculture more profitable to farmers, but also making important “health saving” food available to consumers. He is building the foundation for a future in which millets can become the mainstay of the Indian agricultural economy.
To respond to the growing demand for millets and support local farmers, Dinesh is creating a network of entrepreneurs who can set up local processing units. He is catalyzing ‘small scale rural millet economies’ that are equipped to produce, process and distribute millets locally.
Since the green revolution in the 1980’s, the Indian government has consistently subsidized cultivation of rice, wheat, sugar cane and several other irrigation intensive crops.
These crops have mostly replaced the eight different varieties of millets, a resilient grain that not only consumes lesser water, but also grows in different cycles and regions. They have also brought pattern changes in diets of rural and urban population. Polished rice and wheat have become both stylish and subsidized as staple foods and replaced millets, which were commonly consumed in the past. For instance, historically, millets formed a sizable proportion of staple grains – 45 kgs/yr per capita as compared to 80 of paddy rice and 45 kgs/yr per capita of wheat in 1973 – 1974. The per capita consumption of millets in 2011 – 2012 dropped to 9.8 kgs/yr as compared to 70.5 kgs/yr of paddy rice and 52.2 kgs/yr of wheat. The national food security program has contributed to this by promoting processed rice and wheat through the PDS (Public distribution system) for the past three decades. In particular, the availability of Rs. 2 /kg rice and other such programs have pushed millets out of the diets of a large sections of the population.
Recent experiences have raised several questions over current practices. Climate change and droughts have left small and marginal farmers in rainfed areas with recurring crop failures and losses. Significant parts of India’s land are unable to support crops that require extensive irrigation due to scarcity of water resources and erosion of soil. Further, studies have shown that food habits and environmental factors are among the key contributors to India’s growing problem of malnutrition and chronic diseases. In particular, the replacement of nutritionally high millets, with polished and refined paddy rice and wheat as a staple food has acted as a key factor. Millet based diets around the world have been advised by medical professionals as effective response to lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, CVD, etc.
Despite being sidelined by policymaker’s millets remains an essential crop for Indian agriculture. Millets become the savior crops in drought years, because some variety of it is the only crop that can be harvested in many areas. It also has a fast growing cycle. As a result, India still remains a largest producer and exporter of millets.
More recently as nutritional security became a more prominent agenda in the country, the millet economy is slowly beginning to gain attention. For instance, the Govt. of India for the first time started a program that focused on millets called the Initiative for Nutritional Security through Intensive Millet Promotion (INSIMP) in 2012. In departure from the rice and wheat centric discourse, millets have also been included in the National Food Security Bill and are now being discussed for inclusion into the public distribution system. In addition to such supportive policies to promote millets, there have been citizen sector and government initiatives that promote seeds and production of millets among farmers. Further, consumer consciousness, especially in urban areas is increasing and there is a growing demand for millets.
However, the millet value chain does not have the capacity to address this growing demand in the government systems at the retail level. Given the different sizes and shapes of the millet grain, and their difference from wheat and rice, processing of millets remains a key challenge. The prevailing practice is to de-husk or grind millet manually. This not only limits the scale it can address, but also the quality. In contrast, paddy rice processing technology provides readymade solutions for cleaning, grading, hulling and sorting. Years of work with large subsidies from the government have helped standardize paddy processing.
To compete effectively with rice and wheat at a pattern change level, millets will also need to be available in their staple form. Historically grains have been consumed predominantly in their staple forms and despite the many value added products that are found in the paddy rice and wheat segments, 92% of consumption is in their staple forms. To tap this potential in millets, it is essential to build the missing local value chain on processing that leverages the decentralized agricultural value chain in India (as is available for other crops). In addition, it is essential to make it financially viable for farmers, by attributing market cost to their nutritional benefits.
Dinesh realized that although there are mass awareness campaigns and a push for millet consumption, people were unlikely to shift dietary preferences unless it could replace rice in its staple form. Towards achieving this, Dinesh has been focused on streamlining the process, for cleaning, grading, hulling and sorting of millets. He has been designing the processes and technology with the central principal that it should de-husk millet grains so that they are identical to traditional white paddy rice in terms of their standardization and ease to cook but with their nutritional value still intact.
Networking with leading institutes, academics and engineers, Dinesh created such a technology that can process all eight types of millets- irrespective of their shape and size. This is an important breakthrough as it makes it versatile and relevant to all regions in India and can work locally and be flexible enough to be deployed even in most difficult geographies. Dinesh has also reworked the agricultural processing technology to de-husk and process millet grains, without polishing them so that they are nutritionally wholesome and attractive to consume . This is now enabling production of good quality, whole grain millets in their staple forms and increasing local consumption of millets. Through this key intervention, Dinesh is also laying the foundation for a millet economy.
Dinesh is not intending to patent the technology; on the contrary, he is actively building a multi-stakeholder open coalition for further development and implementation of the approach and technology. He believes that an open source approach will allow for a quicker scaling up and strengthening the millet value chain across geographies.
Dinesh’s venture Earth 360, after being operational for three years has reached the stable production level last year. The unit run by Earth 360 currently has 2000 families as a regular customer base and processes approximately 6 tons of millets every month. While this number will continue to grow, Dinesh sees his role in future in spreading the millet based economy by deploying this technology and process across various geographies through local entrepreneurs. By making the set-up economically viable, and creating a market-based approach to mainstreaming millets; Dinesh hopes to attract wealth and talent to the millet production and processing sector and ensure that it is widely and independently replicated.
Such localized processing plants that are economically viable also reduce the cost and the corruption involved in the current agricultural chain. He is ensuring that grain grown by farmers can be locally processed and consumed. In doing so, Dinesh is ensuring that there is a spillover effect on increasing nutrition for farming communities, increasing livelihoods for smaller rural economies and bettering soil conditions for further growth.
In the spirit of creating a market-based approach to mainstreaming millets; Dinesh has incorporated Earth 360 as a private limited company. For the past three years the company has been running from the support of the community of likeminded and passionate individuals who Dinesh has brought together. Currently, he is exploring more substantial investments from several parties.
Earth 360 through a network of volunteers also participates in various urban and rural markets where they sell the produce and educate people about millet-based recipes. By making millet production viable and possible, Dinesh hopes to replicate its use as a staple in Indian food and cooking. Earth 360 also hosts a blog about millets from cultivation to cooking; the blog currently gets close to 1000 views on a daily basis. He is also actively involved in developing recipes that can be produced at scale and a large number of value added products such as sweets and breads, which are familiar to the local community. To create a more visible shift Dinesh is conceiving a National Campaign “Millets for Millions”, which he will be co-creating with stakeholders from the government, CSO’s, media, farmers and activists.
By targeting the different stakeholders of millet management; regular consumers, families, individuals and households, institutions such as schools and hospitals and the wider rural community, Dinesh hopes to increase awareness of the nutritional benefits of consuming millets. The aim of the campaign is to lift the aspirational value of millets so that the wider community is exposed to the positive impact of the consumption of the various types of millets.
Alongside his work at Earth 360, Dinesh plays an active role in promoting millet production and distribution. He continues to work with universities, research and development institutions to increase availaibility of seeds and support for millet farmers. In addition he is a key member of the advocacy groups to push for inclusion of millets in the public distribution system.
Through his years at the University of Mysore as an engineering student, Dinesh was been engaged with the amateur naturalists club and several environmental movements, like “Save the Western Ghats” movement. He also regularly conducted camps for students on environment education to instill a sense of connection to the environment.
Soon after completion of his degree in 1992 Dinesh moved to live and work at Timbaktu Collective- a community working on farming and environment started by Ashoka Fellow “Bablu” Ganguly. Dinesh was one of the first people to join and settle in Timbaktu. Based in Anantpur, which is an extremely arid district Dinesh anchored solutions in the conditions of scarcity of water, poor access to markets, erosion of soil etc.
Between 1997-2002 Anantpur faced severe droughts, in this period almost half of cattle was lost by the farmer families. Living with the farmer communities during this time and working alongside with them to mitigate the consequences of the droughts has set Dinesh thinking about long term solutions for rainfed agriculture.
This thinking has brought Dinesh to working on Millets and eventually starting along with several likeminded people the Millet Network of India promoted by Deccan Development Society in 2008. The turning point came for him in 2009. Anantapur was again facing a drought with over 85% of the district land being left barren; farmers were selling their cattle to the butchers. Based on his knowledge of millets Dinesh steered an effort to find and distribute millet seeds to the farmers as a contingency crop. As millet production very low in the country was nearly nil, finding seeds proved to be a challenge. However, Dinesh mobilized funds and support network to distribute 15 tons of millet seeds to the farmers covering the area of 5 000 acres.
It was a first time in 20 years this crop has been sown in the area. Despite severe shortage of water 50-60 % of fields were harvested provided the food and fodder. Trying to investigate the reasons for which farmers abandoned this seemly highly beneficial crop, Dinesh realized that absence of appropriate processing and marketing was the main gap. Determined in his belief that millets were a sustainable solution for rainfed agriculture Dinesh set out to fill existing gaps by starting Earth 360 in 2010. His wife Kamayani is also involved full time at Earth 360.