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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I, Grains
Pearl millet is easy to grow. It suffers less from diseases than sorghum, maize, or other grains. Also, it has fewer insect pests.
The widespread impression that pearl millet grain is essentially an animal feed, unpalatable to all but the desperately hungry, is wrong. The grain is actually a superior foodstuff, containing at least 9 percent protein and a good balance of amino acids. It has more oil than maize and is a "high-energy" cereal. It has neither the tannins nor the other compounds that reduce digestibility in sorghum.
Pearl millet is also a versatile foodstuff. It is used mainly as a whole, cracked, or ground flour; a dough; or a grain like rice. These are made into unfermented breads (roti), fermented foods (kisra and gallettes), thin and thick porridges (toh), steam-cooked dishes (couscous); nonalcoholic beverages, and snacks.
Grain from certain cultivars is roasted whole and consumed directly. The staple food of the mountainous regions in Niger is millet flour mixed with dried dates and dried goat cheese. This nutritious mixture is taken on long journeys across the Sahara and eaten mixed with water—no cooking required.
Grain from other types is used to make traditional beer. In Nigeria, it is fermented, like maize or sorghum, to produce ogi—a traditional weaning food that is still common.
In future, pearl millet may be used in many more types of foods. The fact that it can be made into products resembling those normally produced from wheat or rice should make it acceptable to many more people.4 With new technology, there seem to be possibilities of using it even to make raised breads (see Appendix C).
All this is not to say that pearl millet is perfect. Indeed, the crop has several serious problems. For one, the raw grain is difficult to process. Many consumers decorticate (dehull) the grain before grinding it into various particle sizes for use in different products. Dehulling by traditional hand pounding produces low yields of flour (around 75 percent) and the product has poor storage stability.5
Despite these impediments, this plant's promise is so great that we have devoted the following two chapters to its various types. The next chapter highlights its promise for subsistence farmers—the millions in Africa and Asia to whom pearl millet means life itself. The subsequent chapter highlights commercial pearl millets—the types that are increasingly grown by farmers who produce a surplus to sell.
Information H.S.R. Desikachar.
For a probable solution to this problem, see Appendix C. Semi-wet milling and parboiling are two techniques that have recently been shown capable of overcoming the storage stability problem. (Information from D.E. Blyth, ICRISAT).