Sorghum and Pearl Millet in West Africa

Increasing Market Opportunity for Sorghum and Pearl Millet in West Africa

With expanding markets comes improved opportunities for local farmers, women and children

Many West African staple dishes depend on sorghum and millet as crucial ingredients. However, the methods to prepare these dishes are laborious and preparation-heavy. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet (SMIL) at Kansas State University, began a research project in 2013 to develop new products that are ready-to-prepare and fortified, easing the familial burden of meal preparation, which often is the responsibility of women.

The project, Expanding Markets for Sorghum and Millet Farmers in West Africa Through Strengthening of Women and Youth Processors and Nutrition-Based Promotion of Products, is led by Dr. Bruce Hamaker at Purdue University. Dr. Hamaker is also the director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling. 

The project utilizes Hub Food Innovation Centers for product innovation for Niger and Senegal. These centers are responsible for completing and optimizing four main processes and products in partnership with the McKnight Foundation: 

  1. Varietal optimization in traditional and new product concepts
  2. Expanded product/process optimization to include packaging and shelf-life assessment
  3. Training youth from local universities
  4. Facilitating youth and women entrepreneur processors by allowing them to use the facilities on a fee-basis and market their products

Niger and Senegal are both experiencing urbanization and increased disposable income, leading to more understanding of nutrition, eating a balanced diet and a desire for ready-made products. The solution is easy-to-prepare food products created from market-driven demand still rooted in the rich history of West Africa.

Product development focused on local women and children

These unique circumstances are leading to growth opportunities for women. Local women can rent the processing facilities to create their products, leading to a much more efficient processing system than if they were to develop products at home with older technology. The products can then be sold to the public and provide a much-needed boost to the local economy. 

“One of the things I’m most proud of is our team's work where rural women’s associations were built and supported and nurtured to process sorghum- and millet-based foods that are nutritious. The best-selling products they have are the nutritionally fortified products; that is an outstanding win,” said Dr. Hamaker. 

Food products are being created by combining grain-based products with locally available ingredients such as moringa and baobab. These ingredients improve the texture of the products as well as the flavor, and consumer tests have shown that instant products are equal, if not preferred, to traditional products. 

Increasing nutrition in foods that taste familiar and are locally available is especially important to children. Imported products can contain wheat, maize or soybeans, and children won’t eat them because of the odor, color or texture. Substituting the formulas to include local ingredients such as millet or sorghum creates a product children prefer.

Moustapha Moussa, co-investigator on the project, said, “There was a child who was just four years old when his mother passed away. Through the support of the project, women at the center used our formulation to save him. He was malnourished after the death of his mother; they fed him this and also informed us hundreds of children in the village are saved with this formulation.” 

In addition to saving the lives of children through fortified nutrition, all those formulations are made by local female entrepreneurs dependent on these products for their income. So the increase is a win-win for the children and the small business owners.

Agriculture meets market demand and nutrition

An exciting aspect of this research and product development is that all products are market-driven. Supply and demand will not depend upon outside funding or availability because everything is produced and purchased locally, and therefore supports itself. 

Dr. Hamaker said, “The Hub Food Innovation Centers are generating income and incubating entrepreneur processors, and it also affects people’s nutritional status. It’s an excellent way for agriculture to meet the world of nutrition and health.” 

Tim Dalton, director of SMIL, said, “In both urban and rural areas, there are efficiency gains through mechanization and the formation of more processors and cooperatives. Both strategies will increase the supply of locally made foods to meet the rising demand.”

The Hub-and-Spoke Food system has also launched three secondary centers to process and sell products. The INRAN-SMIL incubated ETC processor has sales in over 40 stores. Traditional processing involves lots of manual work, like threshing, then decortication and pounding to get a secondary product. But the introduction of mechanization from SMIL expands production to new and smaller processors and improves the quality of the product. These small processors can only produce one to two tons per day. 

Food technology centers showed that extruded fortified couscous-like products, lakiri (millet, peanut) and tousme (whole grain biofortified millet, moringa), are accepted well compared to traditionally prepared products. These centers have created, tested and marketed ten locally accessible fortified flours.

Opportunities for students and long-term success

These centers are creating more than new food products. At each facility, youth are trained and backstopped in grain processing and fortification. Over 500 women and youth are empowered to work, create and market products. Additionally, ten students have been trained while receiving their bachelor’s or master's of science degrees.

“Students from the program have become professionals and come back to lead some of these institutions. I can say that all the students who were trained through SMIL and are back in the area today have a leadership role in agriculture and work in agriculture, mostly in research,” said Moussa. 

These students come with the tools and knowledge to make a lasting impact on their communities. Moussa also said, “Most of these students have a specific area of the bigger problem they want to solve and continue to work on their own to improve that situation.”

Dr. Hamaker said, “It’s important to me that our research actually has an impact in Africa. I’ve never viewed research as stopping at one place in development; I’ve looked at it more as a continuum. That is why we do research, to have an impact.”

“It’s important to me that our research actually has an impact in Africa. I’ve never viewed research as stopping at one place in development; I’ve looked at it more as a continuum. That is why we do research, to have an impact.”

Dr. Bruce Hamaker