Ragi: Versatile, wonder grain

| Updated on November 15, 2017

Ragi field

Obesity has become a concerning health problem in India, with morbid obesity affecting five per cent of the country's population. Unhealthy foods have captured the food plates of the youth.

On the other hand, a large population of children in the country is malnourished and deficient in calcium and protein. No wonder then, that millet and ragi, can be a good solution to all these extremities. Also with water through irrigation becoming a luxury, ragi is a crop which can withstand severe drought conditions and can even be grown throughout the year, thereby, proving its suitability and thus, aiding its long-term sustainability.

Eleusine coracana, also known as African millet or ragi, is widely grown in Africa and Asia. It is originally native to the Ethiopian Highlands though it was introduced in India a long time ago. Its adaptability to the higher elevations makes it suitable to grow even at a height of more than 2,000 meters.

Although statistics on individual millet species are not very accurate, it is estimated that ragi is grown on approximately 38,000 sq km. It is also, often intercropped with peanuts, cowpeas, pigeon peas or other plants.

Ragi has an important protein component, amino acid methionine, which makes it an important low-cost ingredient for fulfilling the protein intake requirements of millions of poor who generally live on starchy staples e.g. plantain, polished rice, or maize.

Apart from important protein components, ragi also has a substantial amount of carbohydrate, minerals, calcium and fibre. Also 328 KCal of energy can be provided by 100 g of ragi. Most of these benefits peg ragi with a potential to improve nutrition, food security, as well as to foster rural development and support sustainable land use.

Ragi output

According to FAO estimates, India produces more than 30 per cent of the total global millet followed by African countries such as Nigeria etc. In the year 2009-10, the total ragi production stood at 1,888 thousand tonnes, which was seven per cent lower than the 2008-09 production.

Hence, the variation in production has mainly been in single digit.

The total area under ragi production is estimated to be more than 1,700 thousand hectares. According to the estimates, around 60 per cent of produced ragi is retained at the farmer level itself, for consumption.

In India, ragi is mostly grown and consumed in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Maharashtra, Kumaon region of Uttarakhand and Goa; of which, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand produce the bulk of ragi in the country. There are significant yield variations observed even among the top producing States.

The main mode of export for ragi is in the form of ragi flour but this, in smaller quantities. Few organisations such as Dhaniyalakshmi Agro Foods have been exporting ragi products overseas.

A versatile commodity

Ragi is versatile in the form in which it is consumed. In fact, the ragi grain is malted and the grains are ground and consumed, mixed with milk, boiled water or yogurt. Also, the ragi flour is made into flatbreads, including thick, leavened dosa and thinner and even unleavened rotis. It can be ground and cooked into cakes, puddings or porridges, Or, the grain is even fermented and converted to a drink (or beer) in Nepal and in many parts of Africa.

The straw from finger millet is used as animal fodder. In few regions of northern India, it is traditionally fed to women after child birth.

In southern parts of India, it is a recommended food, by doctors, for infants of six months and above because of its high nutritional content (mainly iron and calcium component).

Homemade ragi malt is one of the most popular infant foods even to this day. In Tamil Nadu, every small or large festival of goddess Kali could be complete only with preparations made with ragi (porridge mainly). This porridge is called ‘kuzh' and also is a staple diet in farming communities alongside raw onion.

In India, ragi recipes are hundreds in number and even common food stuffs such as dosa, idli and laddoo are made out of ragi. ‘Puttu' is a traditional breakfast of Kerala, usually made with rice powder together with coconut grating and steamed in a cylindrical steamer. The same preparation is also alternated with Ragi powder, which is more nutritive.

Post-harvest management of ragi is unproblematic; the seeds are seldom attacked by insects or moulds and combined with a longer shelf life make the finger millet an important crop in risk-avoidance strategies for poorer farming communities. The price variations across States are not very high, hence, the commodity has much better price stability too.

Despite so many advantages the ragi has not grown to be a major crop in our country due to it's designation as a low-value inferior crop alongside other millets.

The increase in area for rice-wheat cropping system; neglect and no specific development policy laid down by the Government combined with negligible processing facilities and standardisations haven't helped the cause either.

Government intervention needs to focus on spreading ragi as a ‘wonder grain' for the drylands and infant nutrition. Research points out that sprouting ragi increases the bioavailability of its iron to a staggering 88 per cent, comparable only to mother's milk (and eight times higher than cow's milk!).

Institutes such as the Central Food Technological Research Institute or CFTRI, Mysore and others, may work intensively in developing more and more ragi-based products.

These products need to be popularised and a strong brand recall, built for them.

The ‘Mid-day meal' scheme is one of the channels to supply ragi-based products to children. Ragi as a product has huge processing potential, as much as multiple sub-categories in which the uses of ragi can be promoted.

Bodies such as the ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics), ICAR (the Indian Council for Agricultuaral Research), CBOs (community-based organisation), farmer associations, the Ministry of Health as well as private companies need to build a strong ragi-based cropping system that promotes intercropping of ragi, developing ragi-based food products as much as nutraceuticals that in turn will acts as enablers in multiplying the overall efficiencies of this crop.

Source: YES Bank

Published on January 01, 2012

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