The Great Millet Quest: Fostering Innovation, Nutrition, and Employment Opportunities

By Joe Aura

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In Kenya, the current conversation is dominated by discussions on the Finance Bill and its underlying implications on unemployment and agriculture. Recent protests highlight the frustration in economic instability among the youth, exacerbated by job scarcity, low incomes, and high taxes. Amidst this backdrop, initiatives like Unilever’s Great Millet Quest present opportunities for addressing these challenges by engaging young minds in innovative, millet-based projects that promote sustainable agriculture and job creation.

The Great Millet Quest, organized by Unilever in collaboration with Farm to Market Alliance (FtMA) and the University of Nairobi, offers innovative solutions to Kenya’s pressing issues of youth unemployment and sustainable agriculture. This article explores how the competition aligns with the current conversation around the Finance Bill and its underlying issues of unemployment and agriculture.

The Current Conversation on Finance Bill, Unemployment, and Agriculture

Recent protests in Kenya have shed light on the state of unemployment, job scarcity, low incomes, and high taxes. High unemployment rates and job scarcity can lead to frustration and economic instability among young people, including Gen Z. When job opportunities are limited, especially for youth, it can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and dissatisfaction. Protests may emerge as a way for young people to express their grievances and demand better employment prospects.

To put this into context- during its 43rd graduation ceremony in November 2020, Daystar University awarded diplomas and conferred degrees to 934 undergraduates and postgraduate students. Nairobi boasts 25 officially recognized universities, each contributing to Kenya’s vibrant higher education landscape. Moreover, Kenya is home to 63 officially recognized universities and colleges. With these statistics we can do the math of just how many students graduate in a year. But one thing we as a country have struggled with is how to fix these young, fresh and brilliant minds into a Jon market that is already overflowing with jobless youth.

Low wages and income inequality are significant concerns globally. Young people often face precarious employment, temporary contracts, and low-paying jobs. The struggle to make ends meet can contribute to social discontent and motivate protest participation. Tax policies can impact disposable income. If taxes are disproportionately high, especially for low-income earners, it can exacerbate financial strain. In some cases, perceived unfairness in tax distribution can fuel social unrest.

The Great Millet Quest: A Beacon of Opportunity

Against this backdrop, the Great Millet Quest stands out as a commendable initiative that actively engages university students to develop innovative millet-based products. This initiative not only promotes sustainable agriculture but also offers a pathway to economic empowerment for the youth. The initiative can be seen as a successful example of addressing youth unemployment by engaging university students to develop innovative millet-based products.

University of Nairobi’s Team Nexus emerged as the winner, highlighting their product: Milcracks. These healthy, probiotic-infused crackers made of millet and essential seeds can be served as a standalone snack or breakfast. Milcracks aim to combat micronutrient deficiencies and secured the top prize of Kshs. 500,000/=. The first runners-up, Team Kalmi, developed a precooked, ready-to-eat puffed millet product, millet-meal, earning them Kshs. 250,000/=, while the second runners-up, Team SoyMill, created Soy Mill Noodles and were awarded Kshs. 100,000/=

While sharing a heartfelt and uplifting moment with one of the competitors, The Master of Crestwood Marketing and Communication Chairman, Mr. David Osiany, highlighted that all teams were winners due to their innovative successes.

Youth Engagement and Creativity

The competition actively engaged young minds by challenging university students to develop innovative millet-based products. Encouraging creativity and entrepreneurship among students can lead to job creation and economic empowerment. Programs like Unilever’s Great Millet Quest empower the youth to shape a healthier, more resilient future. As a Beacon of Sustainability, millet’s adaptability, rich nutritional content, and minimal resource requirements position it as a valuable crop for smallholder farmers.

Unilever CEO Luck Ochieng on LinkedIn said, “Calling All Youth to Embrace Millet Farming for a Sustainable Future! 🌾 The United Nations declared 2023 the Year of Millet, highlighting its multiple benefits. Programs like Unilever’s Great Millet Quest seek to empower the youth to shape a healthier, more resilient future.

“…Youth involvement in innovation is crucial for a sustainable future, and this initiative empowers them to protect and shape it,” said Dexter Adeola, Africa Platform Lead.

Promoting Climate-Resilient Crops

At its 75th session in March 2021, The United Nations General Assembly declared 2023 the International Year of Millets (IYM 2023) with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as the lead agency. This is due to its drought resistant properties and nutritional value amidst the devastating change in climate.

Millet, a drought-resistant grain, is ideal for smallholder farmers facing climate challenges. The Great Millet Quest promotes sustainable agriculture and contributes to national food security. By focusing on millet, the competition aligns with broader goals of environmental sustainability and climate resilience.

Millet’s environmental benefits are well-documented. Its ability to thrive in arid conditions makes it an ideal crop for regions facing water scarcity. Studies have shown that millet requires less water than other major cereals, reducing the strain on water resources and promoting sustainable farming practices.

Nutrition and Health Impact

Milcracks, the winning product, addresses micronutrient deficiencies through healthy, millet-based snacks. Such innovations can improve overall health and well-being, demonstrating the multifaceted benefits of promoting millet.

Millet-based products can significantly impact nutrition and health. Millet is rich in essential nutrients, including iron, calcium, and protein. It is also high in antioxidants and dietary fiber, contributing to overall health. By incorporating millet into their diets, consumers can address micronutrient deficiencies and improve their well-being.

Changing the food ecosystem requires creating demand for sustainable ingredients like millet. This will require exciting marketing, collaboration, and tenacity. Unilever’s Great Millet Quest project embodies this effort. Partnering with FtMA, we have trained over 800 farmers in regenerative agriculture, aligning with Unilever’s Net Zero pathway…” said Dexter Adeola, Africa Platform Lead, Nutrition to further underscore the importance of millet in promoting health and sustainability.

Economic Opportunities

The tangible rewards, such as the top prize of Kshs. 500,000/= awarded to Team Nexus, demonstrate the potential for economic opportunities. Encouraging entrepreneurship and supporting millet-based ventures can create employment opportunities and foster inclusive growth.

Millet-based ventures have the potential to create numerous economic opportunities. By supporting innovative projects like Milcracks, we can foster entrepreneurship and stimulate economic growth. Team Nexus, for example, not only won a significant cash prize but also gained the opportunity to collaborate with Unilever and other organizations to bring their product to market. Such initiatives can transform the food landscape in Kenya and provide sustainable employment opportunities.

Team Nexus shared their excitement and passion for the project stating, “Developing our millet crackers fortified with probiotics has been an incredible journey. We’re not just excited about this win, we’re passionate about the opportunity it presents to innovate and make a real difference in Kenya’s food landscape. We’re eager to collaborate with Unilever and the wider organization to bring our millet crackers to market. We believe this product has the potential to revolutionize snacking in Kenya, offering a nutritious and sustainable option for everyone,” Team Nexus said after their win.

Alignment with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The Great Millet Quest aligns with SDG Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) by promoting nutritious food sources and SDG Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) by fostering entrepreneurship and job creation.

The Year of Millet aligns with “Zero Hunger” by promoting nutritious food sources. It also contributes indirectly to “Decent Work and Economic Growth” by fostering entrepreneurship. On sustainability, Unilever CEO Luck Ochieng said, “Millet is a nutritional powerhouse, resilient to adverse climatic conditions, making it ideal for smallholder farmers. These student innovations demonstrate millet’s potential for creating a healthier, more sustainable future. We are committed to supporting these ideas, driving sustainable growth, and making a lasting impact on our communities and environment.

President William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Regime

Then Deputy President William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza manifesto, anchored on the bottom-up economic model, prioritizes agriculture and sustainable development goals. The manifesto outlines six core pillars, one of them being Agriculture, aiming to allocate Ksh. 250 billion between 2023 and 2027 to transform farming, raise productivity, and reduce food imports. Another one that is quite relevant to job opportunities is “Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise (MSME) Economy” which aims to Support small businesses and foster inclusive growth.

Ruto’s vision emphasizes job creation, cost of living reduction, and foreign exchange balance improvement. His policies align with SDGs and aim to benefit the majority of Kenyans.

However Kenyan sentiments toward President William Ruto’s regime have been mixed, with dissatisfaction stemming from several key issues. Ruto’s controversial tax reforms, which faced public opposition and led to violent mass protests resulting in 23 deaths, were rolled back amid widespread discontent (Al Jazeera, 2024). Economic challenges have persisted during his tenure, with the “hustler fund” failing to stimulate the economy and new taxes, including a doubled VAT on fuel, eroding citizens’ purchasing power (VOA, 2024). Additionally, Ruto’s tough-on-security stance and perceived insensitivity, especially following police actions during protests, have drawn significant criticism (Al Jazeera, 2024). Allegations of his involvement in electoral violence, despite his legitimacy in Western countries, have also fueled public discontent (Al Jazeera, 2024).

Albeit it is important to note that opinions vary, and some may still support his leadership, reflecting a complex and divided national sentiment (BBC, 2024).

Challenges and Solutions

Millet-based products, such as flour, cereals, snacks, noodles, bread, porridges, pastries, cookies, pasta, and flakes, offer diverse and nutritious options that cater to various culinary preferences. These products are known for their unique nutty flavor and health benefits, making them a valuable addition to sustainable diets.

Scaling up millet production presents several challenges that need to be addressed for sustainable growth. Key obstacles include low productivity, supply chain disruptions, shelf-life concerns, lack of standards and grades, technical know-how gaps, awareness and branding issues, market access difficulties, water stress, high input costs, and the need for policy support.

Addressing these challenges involves improving agronomic practices, ensuring efficient supply chain management, researching preservation techniques, establishing quality standards, providing farmer training, launching awareness campaigns, creating market linkages, implementing efficient irrigation practices, offering affordable inputs and credit, and incentivizing millet cultivation through subsidies and favorable regulations. Overcoming these obstacles will contribute to the successful growth of millet production, benefiting both farmers and consumers.

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