Finger Millet

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Finger Millet, or Eleusine coracana, is a plant in the grass family (Gramineae) that is cultivated as a grain crop. In Africa, it is typically used to make beer. Finger millet can grow from sea level to 2400m above sea level. It requires fertile soil and 650-1000mm "well-distributed" rainfall.[1]


The finger millet plant is a grass that grows usually 0.5 to 1 meter high. The flowers are branched into 5 to 7 spikes (fingers) that are usually 5 to 10 cm long. The grain is usually reddish brown, dark brown, or occasionally cream.[1]

Origins and Geographic Distribution

"Finger millet was domesticated in the East African highlands. The oldest known archaeological remains were excavated at Axum, Ethiopia and date back an estimated 5000 years. These resemble types of highly evolved finger millet that are still grown in Ethiopia. Cultivation of finger millet spread across the eastern and southern African savanna during the expansion of iron working technology, to eventually reach South Africa some 800 years ago. In tropical Africa it is now grown from Ethiopia and Eritrea south to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia. It is also recorded from Madagascar. Finger millet is of little importance in West Africa, but is recorded from a low-rainfall zone from Senegal eastwards, especially in Niger and northern Nigeria. Finger millet reached India 2000–3000 years ago. From India it spread across South-East Asia to China and Japan. In the United States it is grown on a small scale for bird-seed."[2]

Cultivation in Kenya

Finger millet is a traditional crop of many ethnic groups in Kenya, but "nowadays grown to a relatively smaller extent than before."[1] It is still a major crop among the Kuria, Ilchamus, West Pokot District, Tugen, and Marakwet. However, it was grown since ancient times as a traditional food for the Keiyo, Marakwet, West Pokot, Tugen, Giriama, Taveta, Teso, Luo, Luhya, Kisii, Kikuyu, Ilchamus, Embu, Taita, Kuria, and Kamba.[1] The reasons for its decline is its low yields compared to maize and to the tedious nature of traditional methods of preparing the grain.

As a food, the grain is made into flour and used in porridge (uji) and stiff porridge (ugali). Often the porridge is made with a mix of finger millet, sorghum, and maize. Among the Luo, "Sour milk and melted butter are added to ugali made from finger millet, and this is wrapped in new banana leaves and eaten by warriors."[1]

Finger millet flour and grain are also used in brewing beer, especially among the Luo, Kuria, and Luhya.

"Among the Luo, the seeds are germinated and dried (thowi), ground and put in water for 4-7 to ferment. Fresh flour is put in water for a day or two and fried in balls (mbare). The two are mixed and left for about three days to ferment. The resulting brew is drunk through long hollow sticks called oseke tipped with a filter."[1]

In Kenya, finger millet is traditionally grown by broadcasting the seed, although it is sometimes sewn in lines, particularly when it is intercropped. To harvest, individual heads are cut and dried in the sun. Then they are threshed, winnowed, and the grain is stored. Because the grain can be stored for up to 10 years, it was historically an important famine food.[1]

Names in Various Languages

Finger millet has names in many Kenyan dialects:[1]

Bantu Languages

Nilotic Languages

Other Languages

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 [Patrick M. Maundu, Grace W. Ngugi, and Christine H.S. Kabuye, Traditional Food Plants of Kenya, Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge, National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya, 1999, p. 125.
  2. Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn., Accessed December 6, 2011.

External Resources

External Articles