In parts of East and Central Africa (not to mention India), millions of people have lived off finger millet (Eleusine coracana) for centuries. One of the most nutritious of the major cereals, it is rich in methionine, an amino acid critically lacking in the diets of hundreds of millions of the world's poor. The plant yields satisfactorily on marginal lands, and its tasty grain is remarkable for its long storage life. The fact that certain Africans thrive on just one meal a day is attributed to the nutritive value and ''filling" nature of this grain. (See chapter 2, page 39.)
An indigenous West African crop, fonio (comprising two species, Digitaria exilis and Digitaria iburua) is grown mainly on small farms for home consumption. It is probably the world's fastest maturing cereal and is particularly important as a safety net for producing when other foods are in short supply or market prices are too high for poor people to afford. But fonio is much more than just a fallback food; it is also a gourmet grain. People enjoy it as a porridge, in soups, or as couscous with fish or meat. The plant grows well on poor, sandy soils. It, too, is rich in the amino acid methionine. It also has a high level of cystine, a feature that is an even rarer find in a cereal. With its appealing taste and high nutritional value, this could become a widespread gourmet grain for savanna regions, perhaps throughout much of Africa or even much of the world. It might well have a big future as a cash crop and export commodity. (See chapter 3, page 59.)
Some 4,000 years ago, pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) was domesticated from a wild grass of the southern Sahara. Today, it is the world's sixth-largest cereal crop, but it has even greater potential than most people imagine. Of the major cereals, pearl millet is the most tolerant of heat and drought; it has the power to yield reliably in regions too arid and too hot to consistently support good yields of other major grains. These happen to be the regions that will most desperately need help in the decades ahead.
Already, water is shaping up as the most limiting resource for numerous economies—even some of the most advanced. Agriculture is usually a country's biggest user of water. Thus, for nations that have never heard of it or that perhaps regard it with scorn, pearl millet might quickly rise to become a vital resource. (See chapters 4-6; pages 17, 93, and 111.)