Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is the most widely grown type of millet. Grown in Africa and the Indian subcontinent since prehistoric times, it is generally accepted that pearl millet originated in Africa and was subsequently introduced into India. The earliest archaeological records in India date to 2000 BC, so domestication in Africa must have taken place earlier. Its origin has been traced to tropical Africa. The center of diversity for the crop is in the Sahel zone of West Africa. Cultivation subsequently spread to east and southern Africa, and southern Asia. Records exist for cultivation of pearl millet in the United States in the 1850s, and the crop was introduced into Brazil in the 1960s.
Pearl millet is well adapted to production systems characterized by drought, low soil fertility, and high temperature. It performs well in soils with high salinity or low pH. Because of its tolerance to difficult growing conditions, it can be grown in areas where other cereal crops, such as maize or wheat, would not survive.
Today pearl millet is grown on over 260,000 km² worldwide. It accounts for approximately 50% of the total world production of millets.
Common Names For Pearl Millet
- In India: (Bajri in Rajasthani and Marathi), (Sajje in Kannada); (Kambu in Tamil); (Bajra in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi) and (Sajjalu in Telugu)
- In Africa: mahangu, sanio, gero, babala, nyoloti, dukkin, souna, petit mil, mexoeira (Mozambique), mashela (Tigrinya), mhunga (Shona, Zimbabwe), zembwe (Ikalanga, Botswana)
- In Australia: bulrush millet
- In Brazil: milheto
- In the USA: cattail millet (Pennisetum americanum)
- In Europe: candle millet, dark millet
Pearl Millet Around The World
India is the largest producer of pearl millet. It is known as bajra, and is primarily consumed in the states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Rotla (made from pearl millet) has been the primary food of farmers in Gujarat. It is also used to make other Gujarati Dishes like Dhebra or Thepla, Vada etc….
Pearl millet is an important food across the Sahel. It is the main staple in a large region of northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. It is often ground into a flour, rolled into large balls, parboiled, and then consumed as a porridge with milk. Sometimes it is prepared as a beverage.
In Namibia, pearl millet is known as “mahangu” and is grown mainly in the north of that country, where it is the staple food. In the dry, unpredictable climate of this area it grows better than alternatives such as maize.
Mahangu is usually made into a porridge called “oshifima” (or “oshithima”), or fermented to make a drink called “ontaku” or “oshikundu”.
Traditionally the mahangu is pounded with heavy pieces of wood in a ‘pounding area’. The floor of the pounding area is covered with a concrete-like coating made from the material of termite mounds. As a result, some sand and grit gets into the pounded mahangu, so products like oshifima are usually swallowed without chewing. After pounding, winnowing may be used to remove the chaff.
Some industrial grain processing facilities now exist, such as those operated by Namib Mills. Efforts are also being made to develop smaller scale processing using food extrusion and other methods. In a food extruder, the mahangu is milled into a paste before being forced through metal die. Products made this way include breakfast cereals, including puffed grains and porridge, pasta shapes, and “rice”.
Recently more productive varieties of pearl millet have been introduced, enabling farmers to increase production considerably.