Last year, villagers in the northern part of Shankhuwashabha district (Eastern Nepal) were enjoying the long summer days of June-July in their fields for plantations of millet (Nepali name: Kodo; biological name: Eleusine coracana). The farmers in their bigger squads from Namase, Rukuma, Chepuwa, Lingam, Chyamtang, Chumsur and Ridakh villages of Shankhuwashabha district were busy from dawn to dusk and considered the season as the season of eating grams to earn tonnes of grains for the whole year. They know their geographic and climatic limitations, as their agriculture heavily relies on the monsoon. Schools and campuses are often closed as a part of summer vacation (locally called monsoon holiday); hence, they have more arms in the field.
It was very interesting to see everyone involved in the field, including octogenarians, school-aged kids, youth, and even infants and lactating women. They were involved in different activities of millet plantation; some were digging and ploughing, some were carrying seedlings, and others were sowing. The most amazing thing was that they were enjoying themselves while they were involved in the hard work; singing, dancing, and laughing were widespread in the field as if they were enjoying a carnival. The author could clearly see the ecstasy of drinking millet-wine in the faces of farmers in the remote villages of Shakhuwashabha district during millet plantation, when people start their day by drinking Jand (semi-fermented millet beer) and pack up their day with Raksi (locally distilled drink from millet).
Interestingly, these days, finger millet is highly valued as the source of alcohol products rather than food grains in Nepal. Despite being neglected and considered poor men’s food in most parts of Nepal, the demand for this crop is ever increasing in the mountain region of Shankhuwashabha.
Origin and nutrition value
Finger millet (Eleusine coracana) is a grass family (Poaceae) plant and is widely cultivated in Africa and Asia. It is considered the oldest domesticated tropical African cereal, believed to have originated about 5,000 years ago in the beginning of the Iron Age in the highlands of Eastern Africa (western Uganda to Ethiopia). Finger millet is a self-pollinating crop developed by genome multiplication while domesticating the wild millet variety Eleusine africana and is cultivated at altitudes over 2,000 m above sea level. It is the farmer’s choice due to its high drought tolerance and the long storage time of the grains.
There are different varieties of millet under cultivation in Nepal, such as proso millet, foxtail millet, barnyard millet, pearl millet, little millet, and Kodo millet. Among them, finger millet (Kodo) is the most important crop in Nepal in terms of area and production. In Nepal, millet is the fourth major crop after rice, maize, and wheat, representing a major component of Nepali agriculture, especially in mountainous terrain where paddy plantation is not possible. It is often considered a poor person’s crop despite being rich in high quality nutrients, including minerals.
Finger millet is grown in more than 70 districts in Nepal, with the highest diversity in the mid-hills. It could be a highly potential crop in hilly areas of Nepal, where the environment is getting harsher due to rapidly warming temperatures and higher uncertainties about rainfall trends in recent decades. Finger millet is one of the easiest crops in terms of harvesting procedures and is providing multiple livelihood options such as food, nutrients, fodder, and the ecological balance of the hill agro-ecosystem in Nepal. It is also considered a Himalayan superfood because it is glutton-free, nutrient-rich, rich in dietary fibres, and consists of rare amino acids, vitamins, and protein. Although its production in Nepal could be easily raised, Nepal has been importing huge quantities of millet in recent years despite the fact that its productivity has increased over time.
Native crops and their local varieties, including local rice, buckwheat, finger millet, corn, kaguno and many vegetables, are on the verge of extinction in most parts of Nepal due to the ever-increasing exploitation of so-called improved variety hybrid crops and vegetables. Buying hybrid seeds every year has been a regular practice in Nepal’s agriculture, which is not only draining farmers’ pockets but also attenuating our native gene pool. Further, there have been huge uncertainties about the efficacy of the easily available seeds in the local market in Nepal. Agriculture has no longer captured the interest of Nepali youth; they are increasingly turning away from agriculture, and they are very unaware of the health benefits of local crops. Nepal really has to work hard to improve our agriculture in order to stop the roaring import of goods, including cereals and vegetables. There has been huge potential to improve agriculture and horticultural production in Nepal as the nation harbours a diverse climate and physiography.
Indigenous crops under threat
Gone were the days when local farmers in the hilly districts of Nepal (mainly western Nepal) used to grow indigenous crops. It is estimated that the practice of growing indigenous crops has been reduced to as low as 10 per cent, as most of the farmers in Nepal have switched to exotic crops, thus putting local crops at risk of complete disappearance. The seeds of native crops like buckwheat and finger millets are already difficult to find, although these crops are healthier than other crops. However, nutritious crops have been the choice of health-conscious people in urban areas of Nepal in recent times.
Finger millet is the main crop in Humla and Mugu districts of western Nepal, and eastern Nepal (Province 1) is known as the region with the highest productivity of millet in the country. Although people in many parts of the nation are consuming less millet as food, the increased use of millet in making alcohol and related products is taking its toll. At least millet is being happily harvested in the mid-hills of eastern Nepal, including Shankhuwasabha district, where three major alcohol products: Jand, Tongba and Raksi are quite popular.
Now it is high time to educate people about the health benefits of millet and promote this Himalayan superfood in our daily food menu rather than the exploitation of millet in alcoholic beverages only. The enthusiasm of reviving the neglected crop as seen in Shankhuwashabha district will definitely proliferate if we can be independent in millet production in our homeland and fight against malnutrition in children living in mountain areas of Nepal through its maximum consumption as a staple food.
(Dr. Tiwari is a plant ecologist at Central Department of Botany Tribhuvan University.)