How design thinking could transform the acceptance of drought-tolerant millet

Organisations promoting the transformation of food systems are still finding it challenging to scale millet in drylands. It is time to spin a new narrative around the crop.

Millet (Panicum miliaceum) is an ancient crop and a central component of millions of diets. It has physical features and functions that few other cereals have. One characteristic that stands out is this: Millet works in drylands, because it is well-adapted to arid environmental conditions, such as low rainfall, high temperatures, and poor soil fertility. This makes it a perfect crop for drought-prone areas.

Millet is also highly nutritious with important health benefits to humans. The grain, gluten-free and easy to digest contains iron, which is necessary for forming red blood cells and transporting oxygen throughout the body. Millet is also a good zinc source, essential for immune functions, wound healing, and cell growth. It contains magnesium, Vitamin B and phosphorous. Nutritionists argue that millet as part of the diet is one pillar of good health. Millet helps mitigate malnutrition in areas where it prevails. And its straw is often used for animal feed, thatch and mulch, helping to conserve soil moisture and improve soil health.

No wonder that research organisations like ICRISAT and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute have invested significant resources into improving millets – for example, short-duration varieties that are high in micro-nutrients at higher resilience, thus benefiting drought-affected farmers and consumers alike. Hence, millet is one important element in resilient farm and food systems.

Low response

Almost 50% of the global millet is produced in Africa. But compared to crops like maize, wheat and rice, the areas under millet production in Africa have only marginally increased in 50 years. Modern crop varieties are released but hardly enter farmers’s fields. What was once a staple food crop for many in the 1970s has become difficult to find as a dish on people’s plates. In short, the update of new millet varieties remains below expectations. And there are places where it gets worse: Farmers opt out and replace millet in their fields with maize. Why? Because maize has a market – willing buyers that send production signals to producers. The millet markets do little of all these things.

Compared to rice and maize, the expansion of the millet area harvested in Africa remains low

Source: FAOStat (February 2023)

Systemic challenge

Researchers have searched for long hours for the barrier to millet adoption across Africa. And they found good reasons why millet update remains low: Farmers lack access to seeds they trust, millet markets are informal at best, and agricultural advisory services are hardly equipped to support farmers with millet-specific advice as done in the past. Also, millet is grown in more marginal and less productive areas than maize, and as a result, yields less. This can increase the relative cost of production and ultimately lead to higher prices for millet. As a result, farmers produce millet in smaller quantities and sell at a higher price – sometimes above what buyers afford.

But there is something else significant here: In some communities, millet has an utterly bad reputation amongst young people. In my work across Africa, I heard it repeatedly: ‘If you eat millet, you’ll stay poor’. Never mind the health benefits. In such a situation, producing more and better millet varieties does not solve the systemic challenge at hand – a rather complex problem deeply rooted in the underlying structures, processes, and systems of society as a whole. In other words: If people believe that millet makes them poor, then this harms the product’s soul and cultural significance. It devalues millet in the eyes of consumers and stigmatises those still eating it.

Think in systems

Addressing a systemic challenge requires us to think in systems, which means understanding the interconnectedness of the issues halting millet to scale in drylands. It thus involves collaboration and coordination across multiple levels of society – farmers, the private sector and consumers. For example, one fundamental way to reduce the price of millet is to increase its supply, thus, production. This can be achieved by adopting improved millet varieties, better farming practices, and increased investment in millet production. This requires a higher demand for millet by consumers and an affordable price. Hence financial transition support can be an important factor in lowering the price of millet for consumers. India, for example, started subsiding millet production and millet-based processing enterprises to reduce the cost.

Change the leverage point

If scaling millet in drylands is the priority, then it is time to shift research and development approaches from supply to demand-led interventions – start with the consumers and possible markets. But also the story underpinning demand must change. So far, the argument has been that millet is good for you because of its nutritional value, taste and adaptedness to harsh environments. At first sight, there is nothing wrong with these claims brought forward to farmers and consumers. But what organisations tend to overlook is finding ways to evoke in millet users emotions such as comfort or excitement and create a sense of connection and identity between millet, farmers and consumers. The focus has been on the tangible qualities and not on the soul of the product. Yet, the soul of a product is a critical leverage point for scaling millet crops in fields, products and businesses.

Here is one example of where it worked. Three years ago, Evans Otieno at the Imperial Hotel in Kisumu introduced millet dishes to the hotel’s menu. He tested recipes for brown Ugali made of millet. Ugali is a porridge and staple food in Kenya, typically made from white maize. But at the Imperial Hotel in Kisumu, Ugali made of millet has become a new standard. Evans selects millet with intention, locally sourced and sustainably produced. He experiments with cooking techniques to create a unique flavour and texture. He gives millet personality in creating a dish that is meaningful and authentic. He cares for presentation and plating, thus instilling an emotional and aesthetic dimension to the dish. And when being asked, Evans communicates the story behind his millet dish. As a result, a growing number of guests have lunch or dinner at his restaurant just because of the brown Ugali. Or to say it differently: Because Evans is Millet.

Strategic moves

Organisations in the agricultural sector often believe that if they think positively of a solution, also their clients, customers or end-consumers do too. But this is hardly the case. Designing stronger food systems through millet means developing millet-based products that are nutritious and sustainable but also attractive and appealing to consumers. To build robust food systems, it is essential to take a human-centred approach to product development and understand the factors influencing decision-making at all levels.

One starting point for increasing demand for millet is to help consumer goods companies and the food industry to identify and address the needs and preferences of people. By engaging with consumers and using a human-centred design approach, organisations can better understand the factors influencing consumer behaviour and decision-making regarding food choices. And remember: Farmers who produce millet are consumers too.

Strategic moves that help loading millet with a new 'soul'

Taking a human-centred approach helps identify consumer pain points such as price, availability, taste, as well as image and narratives, and develop solutions that meet their needs and preferences. For example, by conducting user research and gathering consumer feedback, consumer goods companies can identify the tangible and intangible barriers to millet adoption, and develop strategies to address these challenges together with the public sector.

Organisation can learn from people like Evans: In designing future millet dishes with consumers, organisations create innovative new millet-based products and services that meet the needs and preferences of consumers. By working closely with chef-de-cuisines and consumers to understand their tastes and preferences, organisations can create nutritious and delicious products, helping to increase demand for millets in the marketplace. In short: Consumers must like what they ought to purchase, and better designs of millet-based products help.

Organisations must change

Here is the thing: taking a systems perspective for scaling millet is much more than adding another layer of investigation in scaling research or operations. If changing the soul of a product is the purpose, then this requires changes at the organisational level as well – among research organisations, consumer companies and public agencies. This is because a product’s soul is closely tied to the values, beliefs and the culture of the organisation that creates or promotes it. Altering a product’s soul thus requires a shift in these underlying values and cultural norms organisations hold. If an organisation does not align its mission, values, and organisational culture with the anticipated soul of its product, it creates a conflict between the product and the the people producing and using it. Consequently, people perceive the product as inauthentic or disconnected from the organisation. Organisations then become ‘out of touch’. This leads to a loss of trust and loyalty.

Now, the depth of change needed for an organisation depends on a couple of things – the proximity to the new definition of the product, the size and complexity of the organisation, and the level of authentic commitment from leadership. In some instances, an organisation may have to adjust their vision and mission. In other cases, the vision and mission align with the product, but the social organisation and its behaviour are not. Then, organisational change interventions are needed. Rather than transforming food systems, the top priority becomes transforming organisations to support food system transformation more effectively.

Opportunity ahead

The International Year of Millets in 2023, a commitment by the United Nations General Assembly, is to raise awareness about the nutritional and ecological benefits of millets and promote their cultivation and consumption worldwide. This should encourage governments, farmers, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders to invest in research, policy, and programs that promote millet production and consumption. Ultimately, the more awareness there is about millet, the earlier the consumption curve bends upward. As soon as this happens, the adoption rates by farmers will increase, thus the greater the contribution to climate resilience. Making this happen requires organisations and teams with authentic ownership of a new millet agenda that commits to instilling a fresh new soul into an ancient crop.