Pearl Millet

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Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is a plant in the grass family (Gramineae) that is cultivated for its seed (grain). Other names for it are bulrush millet or spiked millet. It was likely domesticated in Africa's Sahel region, just south of the Sahara desert.[1]


Pearl millet is a tall grass that usually grows to 1.5 to 2.5 meters (although some varieties grow up to 5m). The leaves of the plant are long, narrow, and slightly hairy. The flowers form cylindrical heads up to 20cm long (and up to 50cm in some varieties) that begin greenish white, then turn dirty yellow-brown, and last turn grey as the grain matures. The flowers produce large amounts of pollen. The grains are 1.5 to 2.5mm, greenish grey, oval in shape, and may be easy to spot or - in some varieties - hidden by long bristles.[2]


Pearl Millet is a very drought tolerant crop that grows in low semi-arid regions below 1,500m above sea level. It does well on sandy soils but can also be grown in heavy clay soils and will even produce a crop on poor soils. Pearl millet requires 400mm to 800mm annual rainfall.[2]

Cultivation in Kenya

Within Kenya, pearl millet is grown in the drier parts of the country, particularly in the Tharaka region of Tharaka-Nithi District and in Mbeere and Mwingi. It's also occasionally seen in parts of Coast Province, Makueni, Machakos, Embu, Mbeere, and Kirinyaga Districts.[2]

Among the Giriama, Duruma, Digo, Kamba, Embu, and Tharaka ethnic groups, the grain is ground into flour and used in porridge (uji or ugali). "Among the Kamba the flour may be mixed with fermented milk and eaten on its own (kinaa) or fermented in a gourd to form a porridge (isandi)."[2] Medicinally, the grain flour mixed with water is used to treat diarrhea. The stalks of the plant are also used as mulch but they are not good as animal feed.

Pearl millet can be sown by broadcasting seeds or planted in lines covered in a little soil. "Traditionally several grains are dropped at intervals of about 30 cm. Crop lines can be at intervals of 0.5-0.7m."[2] Pearl millet is sometimes intercropped with maize, either by varying lines of each crop or by planting a few maize plants among the millet.

Names in Various Languages

Pearl millet has names in many Kenyan dialects:[2]

Bantu Languages



Nilotic Languages


Other Languages

  • Swahili: uwele, mawele, mwele, miwele

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles


  1. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 388.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 [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.

External Resources

External Articles