What happens when foodies and techies unite? The Accra Food Hack, of course. A first, the Accra Food Hackathon was organised by Essense13 to explore the role of food and technology in promoting Ghanaian and African tourism. The two-day event brought together a cross-section of foodies and technology professionals at Impact Hub Accra for a jam-packed weekend of conversation, brainstorming and exploration. As avid food lovers and tech users ourselves, we were there to capture it.
The Panel Discussion
The panel discussion at the Accra Food Hack was instrumental in highlighting how food and technology can serve as catalysts for promoting local and international tourism. Beyond social media, attendees were curious about what role the recent developments in technology and communication will play in reigniting a passion for Ghanaian food and how that can translate into reviving tourism. Nana Ama Afari-Dwamena, co-founder of lifestyle and events company Dine Diaspora, headed the event. Also on the panel were Jay Gyebi, founder and CEO of Mukasechic, a blog and restaurant that specializes in local food; Tameisha Rudd-Ridge from Tastemakers Africa, an organization which curates memorable travel experiences within Africa; Selassie Atadika, Chef and owner of Midunu; a lifestyle company that features a nomadic restaurant and hosts special events centered on the new African cuisine; Sofiène Marzouki, Country Managing Director of Hellofood Ghana, an online food delivery service that delivers food from several food providers; and Daniel Abunu of Yenkodi, a restaurant that also provides local Ghanaian food.
The speakers gave great insights on how they use technology as a tool for promoting their industry and shared common misconceptions about Ghanaian cuisine that ultimately affect the food industry. For Nana Ama and Selassie, the poor representation of Ghanaian food in the Diaspora partly inspired their businesses. The unpatriotic attitude of some Ghanaians towards local dishes was a hot topic, with many panellists regarding it as an extension of the mindset that ‘foreign’ and ‘the other’ is better than local or indigenous.
As an example, Jay cited basil, which although considered to be ‘foreign’, can and is grown in Ghanaian backyards. The misguided notion that Ghanaian food is monotonous and unhealthy was another topic of debate. Many agreed that the stereotype stems partly from low patronage of local foods as well as the representation of certain foods as the totality of Ghanaian food. Foods like jollof, fufu and kenkey which tend to be high in starch and oils are very popular, while leafy foods like kontomire are lesser known and often go ignored.
Highlighting the importance of portion control in our daily lives, Selassie explained how she uses online reservation systems and catalogues to track customer allergies and other details. Still on the technology front, Tameisha and Jay emphasized the use of digital marketing tools like Instagram in commercializing Ghanaian food, while Sofiene stressed the need for strategic positioning of local restaurants in touristy areas. At the end of the day however, food culture is all about experience, a fact fast food chains like Papaye have drawn on to create profitable businesses. Daniel believes many more opportunities exist for creating unique Ghanaian food experiences that put the country on the gastronomic map.
If the ingenuity of hackers at the first Accra Food Hack is anything to go by, the food industry stands to see major strides with tech advancements and uptake. The possibilities presented by service offerings like food styling and food tours could help to not just advertise Ghanaian food but also to create additional prospects in the hospitality industry. As local ingredients and spices are used in new and ingenious ways, the food industry and culinary arts stand to gain more, however this would depend on tackling key challenges like climate change, food preservation, post-harvest losses and poor customer service. Educational reforms that expand the culinary arts beyond vocational skills and incorporate business elements could help ensure versatility, guarantee efficiency and encourage top-notch service delivery. It would also be beneficial for local food entrepreneurs to learn from countries like Ethiopia and Peru which are often lauded for innovations in their food industry.
The Photo Walk
Like most African cities, Accra has a unique food culture for its denizens with offerings that include home cooking, street vendors, small-scale restaurants (chop bars), local and international food chains, upscale hotels, cafés and larger restaurants with a wide range of menus. Very few of these food businesses focus exclusively on tapping into the potential of local Ghanaian food as a catalyst for tourism. Accra Food Hack, supported by Blogging Ghana, took photographers and food lovers on an exploratory journey – a “food walk” – through the lively streets of Osu to explore the diversity of street food and the ingenious, hardworking people behind it. The queues of patrons eager to get their breakfast at koko and waakye joints, Italian pizzerias, and Chinese restaurants with native décor not only whetted the appetite of the photographers but also gave a general sense of the food industry.
One of the many observations from the food walk was the various options consumers have from exotic cuisine restaurants to micro-market kiosks for local ingredients. Although popular foods like waakye and kenkey dominated the scene, there was also a huge presence of fruit vendors and fast food restaurants. These small businesses compete with larger, more established eateries for both space and patronage. Also obvious was how directly involved people are in the complete culinary process from preparing to serving the dishes right in front of their homes or close by. The menus typically do not adhere to the time of the day; breakfast meals like porridge and tea; snacks like peanuts, freshly made plantain chips and kelewele; and complete meals like fufu and kenkey are all available as early as ten o’clock in the morning. Photographing the interesting scenes and people behind them proved to be a bit of challenge as many vendors were not comfortable with being photographed. Some food walk participants even had to purchase food items before proceeding to photograph whilst others politely requested permission.
The photo walk allowed the world to experience Ghanaian food vicariously through the eyes of photographers and to share the delicious scenes and images across social media using the hashtags #AccraFoodHack and #FoodWalk. Prizes were awarded to team #ChoppingThings and food walker Edmund Laryea for the best photo content online and best food story respectively, with some participants winning raffle prizes from EssieSpice and Circumspecte.
After the photo walk, the hackathon contestants returned to Hub Accra to develop their solutions under the guidance of developers Charisma Achere Buxton (Vodafone) and Ama Asare (Thought Works). They then pitched their final solutions to a judging panel consisting of Tameisha Rudd-Ridge (Tastemakers Africa), Selassie Atadika (Midunu )and Fiifi Baidoo (Ispace), with Ato Ulzen-Appiah (Ghana Think) moderating the pitch session. The four teams – Native Toque, Ecom Farm, Bling Bling, and Bɛdidi – developed their projects with the aim of helping improve local and international tourism in Ghana through technology. The winning team would walk away with a GH₵2000 prize, sponsored by City Investment Company and a communications advisory session from Circumspecte.
Each team came up with a different idea which was not just innovative, but also practically applicable to the local market, and with great potential for replication across the continent. In addition to developing an illustrative model and detailing the exact function of their website or app, they also outlined plans for future development. The teams also answered questions from the enthusiastic audience and judging panel who thoroughly scrutinized every aspect of their concepts and design.
Native Toque built a clean, minimalist web platform to take orders and deliver recipes and local food ingredients to interested cooks. Ecom Farm proposed a distribution chain solution that links hotel and restaurant owners with credible farmers and producers to reduce post-harvest losses and maintain healthy, hygienic production standards. Team Bling Bling sought to provide a localized costumer review platform based on votes. Users would up or down vote any eatery they visit on taste and customer experience, and share new places they find interesting and worth a visit. The eventual winner of the inaugural edition of the Accra Food Hack was Bɛdidi (come and eat); the team is currently validating their idea for authentic dining and exploring prospects for moving forward:
“The idea comes from how tourists struggle to find the best local dishes. Often a town or country is noted for a particular dish but after trying several restaurants they give up on local foods. That was the experience of Fatìma, one of our co-founders. She’s been in Ghana for three months and is tired of restaurant hopping to find the best Ghanaian dishes. One day, Percy, another co-founder invites her to lunch at home. She then realizes she would enjoy Ghanaian food more if she dined in the homes of locals. In coming up with Bɛdidi, we also thought about how tourists learn and experience a town or country through conversations and dining with a family.” – Kwabena Akuamoah-Boateng, Team B3didi
Concluding the two-day event, Yorm Ackuaku gave insight into her desire to combine her love for technology with her desire to get people to experience and respect African food – a desire so strong it led to the creation of Essense13. In addition to sparking alternate conversations and activities on the role African food in nourishing people, the organisation hopes to explore ways for solving problems in the food industry. Ultimately, Essense13 views the African culinary experience as a core ingredient of a vibrant tourism scene and economy.