Meeting that millet guy

Lexman Prasad K
10 min readNov 19, 2022

The reason I wanted to visit a millet processing unit was that it’d give me an opportunity to see and document in person, the process that I’ve been reading about online during the research for my graduation project. At first, the chances of it seemed slim, because the one my mentor mentioned was at least seventy kilometers away from ProtoVillage. And he told me there’s no point in going there as the scale they are working with is like multiple folds of what we’ll be working on. But then my friend Vivek met this person while on a bus from Puttaparthy by chance, who claimed to know about a millet processing unit near Bagepalli. Vivek forwarded the contacted that he got from his co-passenger and it read Somasekhar Reddy. I gave the number a ring but had no luck the first day. Either he didn’t pick up, or I didn’t. The second day I was able to connect, but he spoke only Telugu, which I’m pretty mediocre at. So with a little help from my friends with the translation, a few date changes and phone calls later, I was finally able to fix a date for my visit to this millet processing unit; the coming Monday.

Kalyan had told me to take Valentine and Vamsi along with me as they’ll be working on a concept called “Agri-gym”, an idea that’s been in his head for a long time. So Naveen, who was ready to come with me at first, had to drop out of the plan for these two. On Sunday, Vamsi, the only person who’s fluent in Telugu among us told me that he won’t be able to make it as there’s some other important work. I was not in a position to reschedule it, and I didn’t want to delay it further. So we called Somasekhar again to ask if there was anyone who spoke English with him. He said his brother will be there and would be able to help us with the situation. Naveen agreed to drop us both near the bus stop. I took my shawl, a notebook, and a pen, shoved them into the camera bag, and made sure the battery was in there, fully charged. As advice to Valo, I asked him to carry a hat or something, anticipating the harsh Andhra sun.

Dishti bommai evading the Andhra sun

About an hour, two buses, and an auto ride later we reached the spot. Lakshminarayan who was still on call with me on the phone came walking out waving at us. This is the guy, Somasekhar’s brother, and the owner of this place. He looked familiar, I’m sure I’d seen him somewhere before and I kept thinking. Yeah, he’s the one who visited ProtoVillage a couple of weeks earlier with his friend, their wives, and a bunch of kids. And his wife, Neerjamma confirmed it. They greeted us with guavas cut into wedges, freshly picked from those short, spread-out trees I noticed beside the building. There was an akka sitting there and separating grains of Kodo millet. When we started talking, Lakshminarayan told us that his brother Somasekhar takes care of the processing of rice, and had little to do with millets. His friend Baswaraj runs a bull-driven oil mill in Mahbubnagar near Hyderabad where Vamsi and Valo had gone to attend a discussion. Before he started talking about his worldview and the realizations that led him to start processing millets, he had to attend a call. So in the meantime, I and Valentine decided to go on an unguided tour of the facility.

Storage of raw materials, sieves of different sizes used in the cleaning. (right) Raw foxtail millets

The first thing to cross my mind was that the scale is probably not that different from what Kalyan had warned me concerning the processing unit in Kadhiri. This is huge, the place, the capacity, and obviously the machines. They work on a much larger scale than I expected. Currently the facility has a capacity of producing 10–15 tons of cleaned millet a month, even though production is usually much lesser than that. Lakshminarayan told us that they used to operate with Buchchi mixers earlier on a small scale. But to meet the demand from customers and as a step closer to quitting his job to work full time on millets, he scaled up. The increasing labor charge that came with having to use the mixers also contributed to his decision to scale up and utilize machines. In his perspective, it was necessary, and laying off workers was a small price he was willing to pay. Making millets available for those who can afford them, and spreading the word about their greatness is his version of preparing for the future, and he’s willing to do anything necessary toward that dream. According to Lakshminarayan, the primary factor leading us to a climate catastrophe is the food we eat today. The changed food habits brought about by the industrialization of agriculture cut us off from our roots while negatively impacting the environment, as entire ecosystems were terraformed to make way for hundreds of hectares of monoculture. Citing data from the WHO, he credits modern food habits for the increasing number of people suffering from lifestyle diseases like diabetes, and cancer and those suffering from cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.

He got into this business inspired by, and working with, none other than Dr. Khadar Valli. He is the ‘‘millet doctor’’, whose name I’ve come across multiple times in my research. Dr. Khadar is the one who came up with the Buchchi mixer. Lakshmi handed me a small booklet about millets dedicated to his teacher, which talks about things like ways to cure a particular illness or disease through a millet-based diet and how to live a life closer to nature. I kept the booklet in the camera bag I was carrying and stepped out along with Valentine and Lakshminarayan. He showed us the few plants that grew from the heap of waste millet they throw out, and the grains looked good in the warm bright sunlight. That’s when we learnt about the division among plants, classified as c3 and c4. Lakshmi went on to educate us about the distinctions, mainly in the aspect of their water consumption and how we can say that millets are climate resilient, being able to cope with a variety of climatic conditions including droughts. It is the way in which the stomate is arranged on the leaves that makes one stronger than the other. But capitalism does not support resilience, it wants you to be dependent on the market, hence millets were taken away for weaker crops. So that the market demand for pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation systems is ever increasing.

Foxtail, Kodoo, Barnyard, Little, and Browntop millets

Now coming back to millets, we were told about the specialties of each variety and how they give different results with respect to time, yield, and nutritional values. For him, going back to millets, from the rice/wheat heavy diet popularized by the green revolution, is an inevitable part of surviving a future threatened by climate change. At this point, Neerjamma told us it was time for lunch and handed us the steel plates. There were two types of rice, a portion of red rice and another of white rice that was cooked with potatoes and Toor dal, with a side of the iconic pappu (dal curry) and kudalu, a stuffed, batter-fried sweet. The white rice was a thin and fragrant grain called chinthaluru sannalu. It was a very simple meal, just the way I like it. But Lakshmi was unhappy as he would’ve loved it if we had got to have a millet meal with him. Maybe next time. On our way back from washing the plates, we took a small detour into the guava trees. We picked and ate fresh, moderately sweet, big-round guavas. Then he showed us two big pots buried in the ground that contained a kind of ‘soup of life’. Something that they call “Jungle Elixir”. It is prepared from a culture, made from microbes present in the soil in the depths of the Western Ghats. So according to Lakshminarayan, one liter of the elixir mixed with twenty liters of water sprayed once in fifteen days, and fed forest litter or other compostable matter can revitalize the soil that has lost almost all of its organic carbon content, in a span of two to three months. It’s no surprise that monoculture practices using excessive amounts of chemical pesticides/fertilizers, coupled with the pollution have rendered our soil lifeless. Had the different kinds of millets been our staple crops, and a more diverse kind of farming been in practice, our soil would’ve still had some life left in it.

Millets don’t require a lot of fertilizers to thrive, or hell even water, and some of them can mature in less than three months. Browntop millet can go from seed to harvest in under 75 days. And apparently, millet means a million in some old language and varieties like foxtail millets prove it right as it gives the highest yield among the five positive grains and, than most other crops. Positive grains are the ones that can cure illness, unlike their negative counterparts like wheat and rice, which could be the reasons for those very illnesses in the first place.

The cleaning setup, storage containers and the dehusking machine
Final two stages of processing and stitching the bags before dispatch

The only “processing” that millets require is removing the outer husk, but that is the hardest part. Millets can stay up to 5 years without any problem in a well-ventilated storage setup. But once dehusked, it goes bad quite easily. Polishing them helps for longer shelf life (around 6 months), while compromising on the nutritional value. Unpolished as they do it here, it can stay good for 1–3 months depending on factors like temperature and humidity. So storage after cleaning, and before dehusking is important and that’s what most of the space in the facility is utilized for. The machines for cleaning are huge. After two rounds of cleaning, separating impurities like sticks and stones from grains, they are stored in these five different custom-made containers. It is taken out and dehusked and packed according to the requirements of orders. The waste husk goes into a room for storage outside which will be used as animal feed. The next step is people sitting and picking grains that are not properly dehulled, which then go back into the machine. This is the second last step before the grains are packed, and according to Lakshminarayan is best done by hand. This dehusking is a repeated process until you see that a pretty good percentage of grains is cleared off the outer husk. And once we have an almost homogeneous batch of grains, it is put into the most expensive machine among the lot, costing more than the combined price of the rest of them, a color sorter. So any grain of a different grade of color is discarded. It was from grains thrown out like this that the plants had grown out of, that I photographed earlier. They aren’t essentially bad grains, just that they are not preferred by his customers who desire homogeneity. It is packed in plastic bags and stitched using a hand-held sewing machine before they are dispatched to be sent to the customers via courier. He has customers from around the world and has no plan of stopping. He wants to quit his job as an IT guy and work full-time on millets, but he can’t do that until he has enough money to shift this processing unit out of this rented building, into something he owns.

Loading the orders for taking them to the courier (he told me not to take photos of him working, but anyways)

It was around four in the evening and Lakshminarayan had to leave for the courier office, and it was time for us to leave to as we had to stop at Bagepalli to buy bicycle spare parts for the kids back at Proto. And we didn’t want the shops to close. So we thanked our good friend, our millet guy Lakshminarayan, hoping to meet again, and started walking towards Bagepalli. We spent a lot of time walking, and all the while we talked about each other’s food culture and superstitions like caste and titles. But even after a lot of wandering, and failed attempts at communicating in Telugu, we had no luck. Still, gully after gully we kept looking, and following the directions shared by a stranger, we finally managed to find a shop that sold the things we were looking for, deep inside the town. We bought the tubes, axles and chains, and everything the kids would need. Relieved from potentially disappointing the kids, we treated ourselves to a good cup of tea each, because we deserved it. On our way back we walked back 3 kilometers to TB Cross as we decided that spending fifty rupees on an auto is not worth it, and hey I like walking.

Walking our way back to TB Cross because an auto would be an unnecessary expense