In 2011, Somashekar Pogula’s father was diagnosed with kidney failure and advised dialysis by doctors in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. During rounds of hospitals for treatment, Somashekar realised an increasing number of people were diabetic. This motivated Somashekar to launch his enterprise to make millet-based products that have a turnover of Rs 2 crore.
“In hospitals, I saw many young people were diabetic. Doctors would say it was because of our unhealthy lifestyle. That made me think about the food we were eating. I wanted to make healthy food for diabetics,” says Somashekar who was at the time working as a marketing executive and had experience in various FMCG companies.
After his father’s death, Somashekar quit his job and worked for some time with farmers and in the millets industry.
“Learning about the benefits of millets, I wanted farmers to take up cultivation of millets and also do organic farming which would be more profitable for them,” he says.
Starting with a band of 50 farmers, Somashekar encouraged them to take up the cultivation of rare Brown Top millet variety instead of Foxtail as that would get them better prices in the market. Brown Top millet has a low glycemic index, making it diabetic-friendly and it also helps reduce cholesterol. It is rich in fibre, iron, magnesium calcium, and many minerals besides being gluten-free.
Today, he works with 208 farmers in 10 villages in three districts of Andhra.
The farmers are cultivating Brown Top millets over 300 acres and are getting two to three times the market price.
Somashekar sells unpolished millet rice and value-added products under his brand Adithi Millets.
Kurnool district has a semi-arid climate and is hot and dry for most part of the year. Since the area faces water scarcity, farmers practice dryland agriculture with rainfall being the main source of irrigation.
Kurnool district has a high number of farmer suicides due to unpredictable rains, crop losses and high debts.
According to NCRB data, 1,065 farmers died by suicide in Andhra Pradesh in 2021. Andhra Pradesh has the third highest number of farmer suicides after Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Somashekar says the lack of irrigation and chemical-based farming have pushed up input costs for farmers.
Earlier, farmers cultivated millets but to get more price for their crop, they went in for commercial farming. They use a lot of chemicals, pesticides and fertilisers for which they take loans. “Farming in even one acre requires lakhs of rupees of investment. If the monsoon is weak or delayed, then farmers face crop losses and are unable to earn or pay back debts and many end up taking their own lives.”
After leaving his job, Somashekar toured many villages in Kurnool and met farmers. During interactions with them, he advised them to take up millet farming. He also collected millet seeds from farmers who were practising millet farming and started a seed bank in his processing unit.
After harvest, the seeds are collected and stored. Somashekar has seeds of all minor millets – Foxtail, Barnyard, Kodo, Brown Top, and Little. The millet seeds are stored in 25 to 30-kg gunny sacks. Since millets are hardy, they don’t require any special temperature for storage. He advises that the stored seed should be used within six to eight months.
Getting farmers on board
Somashekar says the farmers who were growing millets mainly cultivated the foxtail variety. “Millets were grown in 18,000 acres in Kurnool but 80 percent was exported as bird feed,” he says.
Having worked in the millets industry, Somashekar was aware about the increasing demand in big cities and advised farmers to grow Brown Top, Kodo and Barnyard which would give them a better price.
When farmers cultivated the Brown Top variety of millet, they got Rs 75-80 per kg as against Rs25-30 for the Foxtail variety.
He got together 50 farmers who agreed to grow millets which Somashekar would procure, process and sell either as flour or make millet-based products. Somashekar provided farmers with free seeds for cultivation.
“We procure from farmers at Rs3500 to Rs4000 per quintal. In case the demand is high, the procurement price goes up to Rs6500 per quintal.”
Somashekar’s innovation in the millet cultivation method has helped farmers get three crops of Brown Top millets instead of one crop of Foxtail millets.
After harvest, farmers usually dig up the ground to remove the stubs of the crop or burn it.
“I told farmers to let 6-7 cm stubs remain in the ground. After one or two rains, the crop starts growing again. So, farmers don’t need to hire tractors to till the soil or sow seeds again. It saves them Rs5,000-6,000 per acre. With this method, farmers can get three crops of Brown Top with just one sowing,” he says.
In 2017, Somashekar put up a millet processing unit in Kurnool with an investment of Rs18 lakh for which he dipped into his savings and borrowed from family and friends. Adithi Millets was registered as an MSME in Somashekar’s wife’s name, Mamatha.
The farmers supply millets to the processing unit. Here the produce is passed through a de-huller to clean and dehusk it. It is then again cleaned manually by women and graded. Either the flour is packaged or it is used to make various products which are packaged and sold.
The products made by the company include instant millet rotis, dosa, rava upma, rava idli, khichdi, and millet malt. The price for whole grain millet rice is between Rs55 and Rs85 per kg while the value-added products are priced between Rs100 and Rs130 per kg.
Creating a market
Somashekar supplies millet flour and millet products to organic stores, supermarkets and diabetes treatment centres.
He says 50 percent of his supply is to organic stores, 20 percent is to healthcare and diabetes treatment centres and 30 percent is to supermarkets.
People can also order the products through Amazon or through email.
However, initially, he had to toil to find buyers for his produce. “Since I have a marketing background in the FMCG sector, I was familiar with the supply chain. I prefer to directly connect with customers. So I travelled to different cities and visited organic stores and showed them samples of my products,” he says.
He travelled to cities like Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai, Mysuru, Vijayawada, Hyderabad, and Coimbatore where he was able to create a regular clientele to whom he supplies.
“Till some years back, there was hardly any market in the north. But after Covid and with 2023 being declared as the International Year of Millets, the demand has picked up sharply,” he says.
Somashekar says the Institute of Millet Research, Hyderabad also helped in marketing and promoting the brand by sending him to exhibitions and other activities that they undertook.
Somashekar has seen rapid growth in his business with the company’s turnover increasing every year.
In 2021, the turnover was Rs1.3 crore which rose to Rs1.8 crore in 2022 and this year, the target is Rs3-4 crore.
Somashekar employs 28 people, a majority of them women in his processing unit. The women are paid Rs300 per day and for them, it is a welcome assured income.
He strongly backs the use of unpolished millet rice.
“The USP of Adithi Millets is the use of 100 percent unpolished millet rice, which keeps the nutrients intact. We only remove the outer husk and leave the other layers which have the nutrients,” he says.
“Commercial processing of millets gives polished millet rice which has stones, mud balls, more breakages and consumers can’t consume it on a regular basis. We give unpolished millet rice which is more nutritious,” he reiterates.
Somashekar says earlier the company was doing ‘job work’ for stores. They would package their millets for different stores which would sell them under their own brand. But from 2021, the products are sold under the Adithi Millets brand.
Somashekar is happy that the risk he took by quitting his job and foraying into the millet industry has paid off. But he has bigger dreams. Millets for millions is the tagline of his brand and he is working towards that.
“I am happy I can provide healthy food to people and better prices to farmers. Both the customers and farmers are benefitting. I have been able to make a contribution to society. But I want to increase the number of farmers I work with to 1,000 so more can benefit,” he says.
Benefits of Millets
Millets are hardy and drought-tolerant cereals which are easy to grow as they require little water, fertilisers or pesticides. They are nutritious and rich in protein, vitamins and minerals like iron, zinc and calcium. Millets are gluten-free and have a low glycemic index which makes them ideal for those who have celiac disease or are diabetic.
Millets are dual-purpose and can be used as food and fodder. Their cultivation helps to reduce the carbon footprint.
On India’s initiative, the UN has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets and efforts are on to increase awareness about millets around the world and to promote their cultivation which can enhance food security, especially in poor countries.
India is one of the leading producers of millet in the world with an estimated share of around 40 percent in global production. India produced about 120 lakh tonnes of millets of the total 304.8 lakh tonnes produced globally in 2022, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
India’s top five millet-producing states are Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
India is also among the top five exporters of millets in the world. India exported millets worth $64.28 million in 2021-22, as per government data.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)