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Summary and Conclusions

Pearl millet is grown largely for its ability to produce grain under hot, dry conditions on infertile soils of low water-holding capacity, where other crops generally fail completely. Correspondingly, it is produced mainly in outlying areas peripheral to the major production and population centres of the developing world. Yields are low, averaging only three-quarters of sorghum yields in Africa and Asia. Most farmers who rely on this crop are quite poor and frequently experience food shortfalls. Little of the millet production enters the commercial market; most never leaves the farm on which it is grown. Rather, many millet farmers are more likely to be food buyers than sellers.

The combination of poverty and severe environmental conditions makes it difficult to improve productivity in pearl millet. While yields are growing in Asia, many African producers are unable to raise yields because of the continuing expansion into even drier and harsher agroecologies and poor adoption of "improved" technologies in these environments. A major reason for poor adoption is that some of these technologies are expensive or otherwise inappropriate for these harsh environments.

The growth of pearl millet yields in Asia is due to the adoption of improved cultivars (both hybrid and open-pollinated) and at least limited investments in fertility maintenance. Farmers are also expanding investments in water conservation technologies as land constraints become more severe. Yield improvements would be greater if the move to more remunerative oilseed crops (e.g., groundnut, sesame and castor) were not so prevalent in the more favourable pearl millet production areas in Asia.

In Africa, by contrast, most farmers continue to plant traditional landrace cultivars. While there are signs of interest in new open-pollinated cultivars, private seed companies do not believe this area is profitable, and public sector investments in seed production are limited. The widespread promotion of hybrids in Asia has encouraged private investment in seed production, but the prospects for hybrid adoption in Africa remain unknown. The costs of distributing hybrid seed are higher than in Asia (because population densities are lower), and the willingness of the often poorer African farmer to purchase hybrid seed remains untested. However, given the low seed requirement and the low production costs (because of high multiplication rates), even poor pearl millet producers in Africa, similar to their counterparts in Asia, may find it worthwhile to invest in improved seed, either hybrid or open-pollinated.

There are strong justifications for more government investment in millet seed production and distribution as a means of reducing the costs of relief during droughts. Care must be taken to ensure that certification regulations for improved seed are reasonable and enforceable. Previous experience has shown that unreasonably stringent regulations serve only to restrict competition in the seed industry, resulting in seed shortages and unnecessarily high seed prices.

Prospects for the adoption of improved management technologies in both Africa and Asia are limited, for several reasons. Firstly, the high variability in annual rainfall, especially in Africa, makes it difficult for farmers to judge potential investment returns. Secondly, labour constraints restrict the adoption of improved soil and water conservation systems as households send children to school and adults to urban areas in search of employment. And thirdly, farmers judge the returns to cash investment in inputs, such as fertilizer, against the gains obtained by saving to buy food or livestock or education for their children.

Such factors require scientists and extension workers to be more imaginative in developing technologies suited to these difficult production environments. Breeders need to consider more carefully the trade-offs that farmers calculate between grain and fodder, between yield and yield stability, and between input responsiveness and productivity under low-input conditions. Resource management scientists must assume that farmers' decisions will change depending on rainfall levels over the course of the season, and target narrow opportunities for even marginal improvements in water-use efficiency and soil fertility. These may include aiming for a small investment in chemical fertilizer to complement the use of manure, or a legume rotation rather than a short-run profit-maximizing investment entailing higher production risk.

The prospects for expanding commercial trade in Africa are limited. The biggest opportunity lies in the expansion of trade between surplus and deficit rural households. This is made difficult by the variability of year-to-year production and the long distances between households in areas of relatively low population density. Traders face difficulties in identifying surplus and deficit areas, and the costs of grain collection and transport are high. However, there may be scope for improvements in market information systems and investment incentives to encourage private investment in grain trade. These have proven beneficial in India where there is greater, but still limited, commercial trade in millet grain. These investments can be justified as a component of national and regional drought relief strategies. In areas where inter-seasonal and inter-annual millet prices are highly variable, drought relief programmes could also seek to strengthen household and village grain stocks, for which millet is well adapted.

Small quantities of millet grain are traded for use as flour and beer malt in both Africa and Asia. In Africa, low productivity and high transport costs will restrict this trade to a high-priced premium market. In Asia, higher productivity and lower marketing costs (associated with higher population densities and better market infrastructure) offer better prospects for expanding millet sales. However, it will still be difficult for millet to compete with other cereals grown on substantially more productive land in regions with higher rainfall. In areas where millet is competitive in terms of price and feed value, demand for millet grain for fish and poultry feed may grow. Pearl millet has the advantage of superior adaptation to high temperatures and infertile soils with low water-holding capacity. In specific areas where these constraints are important, millet grain will compete effectively as a livestock feed against other cereals that must be transported across long distances at considerable expense. Further, there will remain a market niche for millet trade as bird seed.

There are indications that pearl millet is becoming increasingly important as a forage crop and as a cover crop or mulch for intensive legumes production on tropical acid soils. Further, it appears that pearl millet will soon become a regionally important alternative feed grain in subtropical areas in several countries. However, these new uses are relatively minor compared to the importance of millets as food crops of the rural poor, primarily in the tropics.

In sum, millet will remain largely associated with the food security of drought-prone human populations. Productivity has lagged, particularly in Africa, because of the severity of this environment and the pressure of human population growth on traditional land-extensive fallow systems. Correspondingly, productivity improvements will contribute most directly to the alleviation of poverty and food insecurity. The prospects for the expansion of market flows are reasonable if targeted within food-deficit areas. However, the prospects for commercial trade are limited, except in small specialty markets for flour, malt, feed grain and bird seed.

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