New Delhi: Just like the humble quinoa, which has risen to global prominence as a ‘super food’, ragi or finger millet was once a subsistence crop—a poor man’s staple.
For the last four years or so, all that has changed.
“Demand for ragi has come back as people are going back to the past, to explore ancient remedies and an older way of life,” said Prashant Parameswaran, managing director of Bengaluru-based Kottaram Agro Foods Pvt. Ltd. His firm runs Soulfull, a brand of ragi-based breakfast cereals that include chocolate-filled cereals, millet muesli, ragi flakes and a masala ragi-oats meal.
Soulfull, introduced in 2012 in Bengaluru, is now sold in Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Kerala. “Even in smaller towns, ragi is coming back in traditional foods like ragi roti, ragi puttu and others.”
In breakfast cereals, Soulfull competes with Kellogg’s India which also sells a ragi version of its popular chocolate cereal Chocos.
Slowly, other major consumer goods players have caught on to the emergence of ragi as an alternative food. Britannia Industries Ltd’s brand Nutrichoice sells ragi cookies marketed to consumers with diabetes while MTR Foods Pvt. Ltd sells ready-to-eat ragi dosa and ragi rava idli mixes. Last month, Mint reported that powdered drink maker Rasna was launching a kids’ snack, Vitos, made of ragi.
The return to ragi is part of a growing health-food movement around the world. For the Indian farmer, this is good news.
Ragi and other plants of the vast millet family are easy to grow because of their low water requirement. “These are hardy crops, and so most farmers don’t add fertilizers or pesticides to them, as is traditional,” Parameswaran said.
“The increase in area under cultivation will come with backward integration”, which can include FMCG companies selling ragi goods or food processing firms, said Vilas Tonapi, director of the Indian Institute of Millets Research.
Tonapi said the biggest roadblock to increasing ragi cultivation is the lack of millet mills to process the crops. “As the quality of ragi being cultivated is changing, and other minor millets like foxtail are being cultivated, these need to go through the right mills,” he said. “We are working on programmes to help come up with the right machinery for millet mills.”
Moreover, the area under ragi cultivation has shrunk over the decades. “Ragi was historically an important crop but with Green Revolution and government policies, farmers moved to cultivating rice and wheat,” said Tonapi.
Karnataka, India’s largest ragi growing state, has seen a steady rise in production. Between 2011 and 2014, ragi production in the state grew 12.7% while the total area under ragi cultivation grew 4.1%. Yield per hectare has also risen steadily—according to central government data, ragi yield across the country rose 8.34% from 1,534 kg per hectare in 2005-06 to 1,662 kg per hectare in 2014-15.
Apart from Karnataka, the major ragi-cultivating states are Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
“The supply side is so lopsided that the prices of ragi are rising,” said Tonapi.
In the decade to December 2016, ragi prices increased 270% compared with a 113% rise in the wholesale price index for all cereals, according to data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
“The domestic and international export market for ragi can be worth approximately $4.5 billion,” said Tonapi. “If the policies of the government are right, given this demand, the area under ragi cultivation can grow 30% in the next few years.”
“In the years we worked with ragi farmers on the ground, these farmers can see ragi going into large packaged foods business,” Parameswaran said. “This will convince farmers (to switch to ragi cultivation).”