be ready to harvest just at the right time in the dry season. It is the length of day that triggers the plant to flower, not the age of the plants. The yield may be poor if the season has been difficult, but the plant will at least flower and mature whatever grain it can.


Traditional rustic varieties tend to be big, tall, leafy plants that perform best when spaced far apart. While these varieties produce massive amounts of greenery (6-12 tons per hectare even under the prevailing circumstances), the harvest index is often less than 20 percent. This means that less than 20 percent of the plant (above ground) is grain and more than 80 percent is stalk and leaves, as compared to 30 percent or more for improved high-yield-potential varieties.

But farmers who must produce almost every necessity right on their own land look at these cereals in totality. To them, there is no such thing as excessive stalk. For anyone who cannot buy fencing, roofing, or fuel, stalks are as valuable as grains. And for those who have a cow or some goats, the leaves are what keep the animals alive during the dry season.4

Consumer Preferences

To a subsistence pearl-millet farmer, the kernel characteristics—shape, color, processing qualities, and endosperm texture—can be more important than the absolute yield. A grain is almost worthless if it doesn't have the right (and often very subtle) properties for the type of foods the family eats. Subsistence growers choose among the varieties mainly on grounds of suitability for preparing such dishes as:

  • Toh. The principal food, served at least once a day in the northern Sahel, toh is a stiff porridge prepared by adding pearl millet to boiling water while stirring.

  • Koko. This is prepared by mixing pearl millet flour with water into a fine paste, which is then put aside in a warm place for a day or two to ferment. The resulting sourdough is then dropped into boiling water to form a thin porridge of creamy consistency.

  • Marsa. This favorite snack of Ghanaians is a deep-fried pancake, prepared from the leavened batter of pearl-millet flour.


This feature is restricted neither to Africa nor to this crop. Even today in parts of Turkey and Syria wheat straw sells for more per kilo than wheat grain (and wheat, of course, is a high-priced crop). Information from J. Harlan.

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