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Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is the most widely grown type of millet. Grown in Africa and the Indianmarker 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 1850's, and the crop was introduced into Brazil in the 1960's.

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 Africa: mahangu, sanio, gero, babala, nyoloti, dukkin, souna, petit mil, mexoeira (Mozambiquemarker), mashela (Tigrinya), mhunga (Shona, Zimbabwemarker)
  • In India: ಸಜ್ಜೆ (Sajje in Kannada); கம்பு (Kambu in Tamil); बाजरा (Bajra in Urdu,Punjabi and Hindi), बाजरी (Bajri in Marathi), సజ్జలు (Sajjalu in Telugu)
  • In Australia: bulrush millet
  • In Brazil: milheto
  • In the USA: cattail millet (Pennisetum americanum)
  • In Europe: candle millet, dark millet


In its traditional growing areas in India and many African countries, pearl millet is consumed in the form of leavened or unleavened breads, porridges, boiled or steamed foods, and (alcoholic) beverages. In the Sahel and elsewhere in West Africa, pearl millet is an important ingredient of couscous. The stalks are a valued building material, fuel and livestock feed.In non-traditional growing areas in the USAmarker, Canadamarker, Brazilmarker, Australia, and Europe, pearl millet is grown as a cover crop, or for forage or grain. Different varieties are grown for forage or grain.

Pearl millet is becoming essential to soybean production in the Cerradomarker region in Brazil, where it is used to conserve soil quality, and to suppress nematodes and weeds. Although originally used as a cover crop, area under cultivation is increasing rapidly and pearl millet is being grown for its quality grain and forage. In Canada, pearl millet cover or rotations are valuable to reduce soil-borne nematodes in potato cropping systems.

In the USA, this temporary summer annual grazing or hay crop is high in protein, is highly digestible, and is free of prussic acid. It is commonly used for feeding dairy and beef cattle, horses, goats, and other livestock.

Much of the grain is currently used to feed bird, particularly poultry and gamebirds for recreational hunting, such as bobwhite quail, turkey, pheasant, and dove. It is showing considerable value in poultry and egg production. When used to feed layer hens, the eggs have a higher concentration of the healthier omega-3 fatty acids. The grain is also used to feed livestock such as cattle and pigs, and is used in some specialty dog food products.

Because of its high protein content and rapid fermentation rate, the grain is showing promise as an economical feedstock for ethanol production. It is fully compatible in facilities that ferment corn or sorghum.

Pearl millet products are sold in specialty grain or ethnic food markets in the USA, particularly in those catering to immigrants from Africa or the Indian sub-continent where pearl millet is a familiar and traditional food. Use of this gluten-free grain in specialty food markets in the USA has been somewhat limited. Inconsistencies in product labelling exist in the market. Various types of grains are sold as "millet", and the resulting product inconsistency currently limits the development of novel food products from pearl millet.

Pearl millet grain


Pearl millet grain is comparatively high in protein and has a good amino acid balance. It is high in lysine and methionine + cystine levels. It contains twice as much methionine than sorghum, an important trait for organic poultry production. The grain is also comparatively high in fat, and linolenic acid comprises 4% of the total fatty acids.

Even when grown in highly stressed conditions, the grain is essentially free of aflatoxins and fumonisins. These carcinogenic mycotoxins are a significant problem on maize when it is grown in regions where it is not well-adapted. Government policies that encourage maize production in regions where pearl millet is a traditional food may have long-term health implications among these populations.


Pearl millet around the world


Indiamarker is the largest producer of pearl millet. It is primarily consumed in the states of Gujaratmarker and Rajasthanmarker.


Pearl millet is an important food across the Sahel. It is the main staple in a large region of northern Nigeriamarker, Nigermarker, Malimarker and Burkina Fasomarker. 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 Namibiamarker, 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 ferment 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 cementlike 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.


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