Where does your food come from? Who grows what you eat? Does it matter? Do you even care? How do policy, climate change, global prices and consumption patterns affect farmers’ livelihoods? Better still, how do they impact the very foods you eat? Does it matter? Do you even care?

When I signed on as the host for an upcoming documentary on food, I was excited. Because, food. I have always been an ardent foodie, one who has never been shy enough to feign indifference and who enjoys being creative with cuisine. I like food papa! And so, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to not only help showcase some of my favorite Ghanaian foods, but also to discover new ones, tease out similarities with other African countries, explore some of the pressing policy questions of our time, and get a peek into the world of film making.

The irony? The majority of my work on the food documentary was during the Islamic month of Ramadan. Having conversations about food with die-hard foodies like myself and watching them eat the sumptuous food is officially the hardest thing I have had to do during the annual fast.

There were moments when I wanted to excuse myself from the fast in the name of work and succumb to my natural instincts. But that’s what Ramadan is about: self-control. So I didn’t. Although there was that one time I took fufu to-go (genius, if you ask me). The hunger pangs, the mouth-watering treats, and the likelihood of encountering foods I otherwise would not have been privy to were all expected. What I hadn’t anticipated however was that I would learn so much about the  super foods and crops indigenous to Ghana’s three northern regions and so-called bread basket: the foods from the lands of my ancestors, the crops that nourish my people.

A Re-Introduction to Tamale and Waakye

Northern Ghana during the rainy season: green savannah plains and vegetation
Northern Ghana during the rainy season: green savannah plains and vegetation

It might seem untoward that someone who travels as much as I do had never actually taken a domestic flight in her own country. But that was exactly the case . My plane ride from Accra to Tamale was a first; all my initial travels across the country have been by road. While many abhor the ten- to eleven-hour bus or car trip Accra to Tamale, I have always enjoyed it. Road trips are my thing, precisely because they offer longer lengths of time to see and contemplate.

As I boarded the Star-Bow flight with a mix of locals and expatriates, I wondered how the Northern region would look from above. Dusty brown? Barren and deserted? Lacking and littered with tree stumps from too much deforestation?

Quite the contrary. While the aerial view of Tamale during the rainy season wasn’t anywhere near the lushness of Abidjan or the swampy wonderlands of Freetown and Conakry, it certainly didn’t have the large patches of brown that mark Accra’s construction zones. My mind went back to my geography textbook which described the Savannah vegetation: shorter trees and grassy plains. Someone should have added ‘in the dry season’, I thought to myself during the hour-long flight and later as we left the airport behind, cruising through Tamale’s well-done, traffic-devoid roads.

I felt a burst of pride as I watched women and girls of all ages on their motorbikes, go about their business; some with children as passengers. It was an affirmation of what I knew from spending a few years in Tamale as a child, from witnessing the lives of my mother, aunties, cousins, friends, strangers: Northern Ghanaian women are hardworking and full of surprises.

After dropping our belongings off at Mafara Hotel, a medium range bed and breakfast not far from the Tamale Sports Stadium, we made our way into town to get breakfast: waakye. In recent times, the rice and beans dish has become the breakfast food of choice for many of Ghana’s young professional, resulting in a celebrity status of sorts for waakye sellers like Aisha, Auntie Muni (both in Labone), and Fulera (in Madina). Compared to its cousin jollof, waakye is less known internationally. That said, I personally think Ghana stands a better chance of branding itself globally with waakye. Then again, I’m biased as a Dagomba and Northern Ghanaian woman; waakye is embedded in my gene code.

My late aunt Mma Sana was a very successful waakye seller who had people from all walks of live trudging to Tema Community 7 for her waakye, and my primary school classmates couldn’t get enough of my mother’s waakye. Needless to say, the best waakye is in Tamale. On this particular trip, I opted for Rukaya’s waakye with talia (spaghetti, which now that I look at it, seems to be taken from “Italia”?), two pieces of goat meat, and lots of shito (pepper sauce). With that tucked away nicely in my belly, I was ready for the long day ahead on Tamale’s shea farms.

(Re)Discovering Northern Ghana’s Golden Child: Shea

Shea fruit and nuts from a Sheanut farm in Tamale, Northern Ghana
Organic shea fruits (green) and shea nuts (brown)from a farm in Tamale, Ghana

With an estimated 60% of Ghana’s poverty concentrated in its three northern regions leading to the north-south development divide. Many Ghanaians consider the north to be devoid of anything interesting or worthwhile; a stereotype so entrenched that many Northern Ghana natives who venture south live out its after effects; forever being typecast as illiterate, incompetent or unruly. However, in recent years and with the emergence of the natural hair and beauty revolution, Ghana’s north has gained some level of prominence thanks to one very essential crop: the shea tree. Tamale, the capital of Ghana’s Northern region, even derives its name from the fruit, known as “tama” in the local language Dagbani.

The sheanut tree is a wild crop, typically growing on its own outside villages. It takes about to 20 years to bear the shea fruit which holds the shea nut and oils that are becoming increasingly important to the beauty, candle- and chocolate-making industries. While men tend to the tree, the arduous task of processing the sheanut is almost wholly a woman’s venture. However, through the initiatives of some organisations and cooperatives, some effort is being made to grow sheanuts on a larger scale by developing shea farms. As someone who is very attentive to what I put on my skin and in my kinky hair, I was aware of the nourishing powers; my mother used it for my siblings and I growing up (sometimes spraying some of her perfume to mask its raw scent) and many mothers in Northern Ghana have used shea butter for themselves and their newborn babies for generations.

All that said, I’d become more attuned to the finished product – the shea butter which has led to a revoultion of sorts in the skin and hair care industries. It wasn’t until I bit into the green soft skin of a shea fruit offered to me by Mma Safia, the head of a women’s shea cooperative, that I realized that I had actually eaten the fruit before. The feel, sweetness and smell of it sent memories flooding back of the first time I encountered the fruit, sometime in the mid-1990s in Tamale. A bastion of knowledge on food culture and agriculture, Mma Safia led me on a tour of both the village and the foods that I had somehow managed to forget. Listening to her share the numerous benefits and uses of shea in our daily lives, I felt like a fraud. How was it that I had allowed something so central to the lives and economy of northern Ghanaians and Ghana to be reduced to mere butter in containers?  I guess the appropriate term here would be “out of sight, out of mind”. Guilty as charged.

As it turns out, shea butter is only one element of the super fruit that is shea. Aside from the fruit being edible, the oil and butter derived from the shea nut is used for cooking foods like kose (bean cakes), wagashi (fried cow milk cheese) and soybean khebab. As Mma Safia would later point out, it also forms the basis of refined vegetable cooking oils and is gradually being used to replace cocoa butter in the making of chocolate. My siblings and I used to eat wagashi and soy-bean khebab when we lived in Tamale. Like many Northern mothers, my mother had preferred the soft, chewy, cheese and soybean delicacy to meat which was relatively more expensive and less nutritious. Yet I hadn’t realized that the soybean khebab is exactly the same as tofu; the delectable meal sought after by vegetarians the world over. What I had considered to be “very American” was actually a traditional food in Ghana’s north! What else did I have to learn? A lot, apparently.

Policy Debates Sparked by Millet & Fonio

An ear of millet from a smallholder farmer and farm in Paga in Ghana's Upper East region
An ear of millet from a smallholder farmer and farm in Paga in Ghana’s Upper East region.

Besides waakye (rice and beans), Northern Ghana’s most popular food export is tuo zaafi (TZ), a starch-based and pasty meal which is lighter than it’s southern cousin banku. Having a mother who couldn’t go a day or two without TZ meant my siblings and I were very conversant with the maize-based dish. We would eat it at least twice a week (much to our childish exasperation). But while most people associate it solely with ayoyo (soup made from green, leafy vegetables ), my siblings and I had grown up eating it with a variety of soups: maan kuni (dried okro soup), maan mahili (fresh okro soup), sima jeri (groundnut soup), and so on. Until my trip to see two smallholder farmers near the Upper East regional capital Bolgatanga, I hadn’t known that the dish was traditionally prepared using millet, not maize (corn).

As I would discover at the farms in the crocodile-famous Paga, millet is very central to many northern communities, so much such that it is the equivalent of kola nut – the first thing offered to a guest as a welcome. Because of its high nutritional value, many farmers have the equivalent of millet water (a porridge of sorts) for breakfast before working on their lands and don’t eat until dinner. My discussion with Isaac, a headmaster and farmer revealed many things about the crop, including the fact that it has lost considerable prominence in Northern households for the preparation of TZ. For one thing, its use has been restricted over the years due to climate change and the lack of rainfall and water needed to grow the plant. The increase in north-south migration also means fewer hands to farm the land and grow the crop. And then there is the considerable amount of work involved in threshing and grinding the grains; stirring the flour into a meal; as women take on additional responsibilities – in the workplace for instance – the preference has been to opt for meals that involve less preparation-wise.

But perhaps the most influential factor for the gradual demise of millet has been the tremendous policy push for maize by various local and international stakeholders and donors. All this despite the fact that cultivating maize on a large scale is especially costly: maize almost always requires the use of chemical fertilizers, while millet grows well with organic manure. As an economics student, I had learned about how structural adjustment policies influenced food culture and habits in many African nations; countries like Senegal which had millet as their staple food eventually transitioned to rice imported from abroad. And then there’s the fact that many traditional food crops often have a spiritual significance to the communities they are native and that locals had farming practices more suited to their indigenous crops and to ensuring sustainble agriculture. It was startling to realize that the very phenomenon I had studied and witnesses in other countries in Africa’s Sahel belt was happening right here in Ghana, northern Ghana to be precise. What would happen if we paid more mind to the policies we push? If we actually took stock of what foods and crops are available to us and leveraged them to balance out our ever-growing import bill?

A woman prepares tuo zaafi, a maize or millet based starch meal indigenous to Ghana's north
A woman prepares tuo zaafi, a maize or millet based starch meal indigenous to Ghana’s north.

Fonio. A little known crop, grown largely in West Africa and apparently the most nutritious of all grains and cereals. I knew nothing about fonio until I joined the documentary project. Even my father who is a diligent researcher on natural and healthy foods had never heard its name. To put it simply, of all the crops and foods I encountered during my food expedition up north, fonio was a mystery to me. It was also the one I looked forward to learning about the most. As it turns out, fonio is widely used in Sahelian countries like Senegal and Mali and is gradually gaining attention in the United States and West after Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam introduced it to his restaurant in New York in 2014.

Speaking with a young entrepreneur who quit her job with an international NGO to focus on producing and processing fonio pointed to one thing: fonio is a miracle crop in more ways than one. She explained its numerous health benefits: helping lower cholesterol and prevent diabetes, aiding with digestion, and helping replenish iron, something particularly important for women. The crop takes eight weeks (two months) to grow for harvest and can be used for breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals. Processed fonio looks a bit like couscous or gari, although a bit finer and it takes about 15 minutes to prepare. It grows on virtually any soil and is also drought-resistant; an obvious option for ensuring food-security and climate resistant farming. So why it is largely unknown in Ghana although it grows abundantly up north? Imagine what opportunities could emerge if a concerted effort were made to create and grow a fonio industry. Yeah, I know. Mindblowing. Anyway, if you are on the hunt, you can purchase some fonio from Dim Fonio (what I use, based in Tamale, but stocks in Accra and maybe other cities in Ghana) or Abaa Buw (Accra-based).

Can We Feed Ourselves? That is the Question.

My four-day trip through Tamale, Bolgatanga and Paga might not have answered all my questions, but it certainly got me thinking about the breadth of crops and foods from Ghana’s three northern regions. I have always had somewhat of an aversion to the term “Ghana’s bread basket”, because I felt it was limiting, restricting an entire people to one trade. No longer. Food is at the heart of any society or economy and entire industries spring from agriculture. If we can develop a holistic approach to each of these crops and build self-sufficient ecosystems around them there is no telling what could happen.

Already folks like Ndudu by Fafa are taking advantage of digital tools to make a living by showcasing and cooking indigenous African foods on platforms like Instagram. In addition to sharing recipes and photos, they could contribute to the much-needed discussion on food-security, sustainable agriculture, healthy living and farmer livelihoods . Projects and businesses like Midunu and Dine Diaspora curate culinary experiences that bring people together and spark ideas for new businesses and initiatives. The jollof phenomenon has single handedly kept diplomatic relations between West-African nations like Ghana and Nigeria intact, while providing much-needed comic relief from some of the most challenging issues of our time.

Soybean khebab (tofu) known locally as Wagashi being fried in shea butter oil in Tamale, Ghana
Soybean khebab (tofu) being prepared in shea butter oil in Tamale

Perhaps the main result of my trip is my increased conviction that hundreds, if not thousands of opportunities and resources exist in Ghana and other African countries,  just waiting to be discovered and done justice to. It is no coincidence that the second global goal focuses on food security, improved nutrition, climate change and sustainable agriculture. While it’s great to enjoy a hearty meal, share food shots online and banter about where jollof originates, it is equally important for us to address the questions of climate change, food security and sustainable livelihoods. To explore how people’s consumption in the West and countries like China affect the global food chain, down to the farmers I met in Paga.  Each of us should take an interest in where our food comes from, in what we feed ourselves, our families, our countries. Beyond knowing the local market, grocery store or person who cooks our food, we should be making an effort to learn about the farms, regions, communities and farmers who tend our lands and nourish us. More importantly, it’s time we realize how important policy is to everything: everything we eat – or don’t eat – comes down to exactly that.

And so, I leave you with the same questions that started my journey: where does your food come from? Who grows what you eat? Does it matter? Do you even care? How do policy, climate change, global prices and patterns of consumption affect farmers’ livelihoods? Better still, how do they impact the very foods you eat? Does it matter? Do you even care? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section. Thanks for reading.

This article was written by Jemila Abdulai and originally published by Circumspecte.com.

Photo Credit: Circumspecte


  1. Great write-up Jemi. I couldn’t agree less…visited the north for the first time myself in 2014 and the vast uncorrupted land available is mindblowing…think about the value waiting to be realized through agriculture alone.
    And now I’ve leant about Fonio too :). Well done.

    • Thanks for your comment! “Value waiting to be realised” is the appropriate description! Looking forward to seeing what you come up with fonio-wise!



        • Dear Sherif, yes fonio is grown in Ghana as mentioned in my article. You should be able to find some more information about the crop online. Hope that helps.

  2. Sidney Rockson Reply

    I was at Tamale, the first time I visited the Northern Region. I was shocked to see green land and a cooler weather after flying from Accra’s hot weather. I was greated by vast shea plantations by the road sides. I think much attention should be paid to the cultivation of some of these cash crops in our dear country. There is more room for improvement. Nice read!

  3. Stella Kessie Asare Reply

    Lived in Tamale but never heard of Folio, I’ll be going to Ghana soon and will like to know more about Folio, how can I find it, and how does it look like?
    I love your articles as I am an Esthetician (a skin care specialist) and interested in using local and organically grown herbs, fruits, oils etc.

  4. Stephen Kofi Anin Reply

    Thanks very much Jemila for your write up. I couldn’t stop reading.
    I was born in Tamale but grew up in the south. My first visit to the north after my childhood was 2008 for a funeral. It was an exciting trip that run out in a few days without any significant notice of differences in climate between the south and north. My second visit was in March, 2017 spending my 38th birthday working. The heat was unbearbale as I had come down from a temparate environment to undertake my pilot study on my research project. Honestly, it was an unpleasant trip doing 11-12 hours by commercial bus in and out in order to have a good feel on the ground. But besides my quest to complete my studies up north, there’s a natural affinity to the north and northerners I cannot simply allude to my place of birth, waakye, TZ or the simplicity of life. Its the people I guess or its something about myself I am yet to discover.
    Well my next visit is impending and I have mixed feelings about what awaits me…climate, travels. But thinking about the vast opportunities to make a difference and the good people I met, I might as well do what a man has got to do to get my TZ, waakye and most importantly…sigh for relief…mission accomplished !!

    Question though… are there lots of differences between the various tribes or communities with how porridge or TZ is prepared for children?

    Thanks a million. Keep the blog running !

  5. I so much enjoyed reading about Ghana superfoods, some of which I ate while visiting northern Ghana late in 1975. I found this article while searching for information about one of my favorite foods from Ghana “Bolsa beans”. We often enjoyed them cooked into a soup, and wish I could find them here in California.

    My late husband and I were teaching at the Institute for African Studies while my husband did field work in music in Dwaben/Juaben for his Ph.D at the University of California in Los Angeles. His mentor and supervisor was Joseph Hansen Kwaben Nketia. One of our colleagues, also a Ph.D student in Ethnomusicology at UCLA, James Koetting and his wife Ernestine, had preceded us to the University of Ghana in Accra by about a year. They were instrumental in getting us and our two sons, then 18 months and 3 years, oriented to life in Ghana. At the end of their stay in 1975, Ernestine invited me and our two sons to go to the northern part of Ghana while she bade farewell to the friends and colleagues she and her husband had worked with. We took a similar route, part plane flight, part bus, and ultimately the last (seriously overloaded) bus to our guest house. We had the opportunity to experience walking to an open market some distance away in the morning, and coming back after night fall, dining on okra stew with millet porridge, and just once, sharing a grilled chicken with a family. I took several photos of the traditional housing and clothing, and made an attempt to carry my then 2.5 year old son on my back wearing the traditional cloth, but that did not last for long because he had grown to tall by then. I remember my trip fondly. I remember one day visiting a traditional village to which Ernestine’s friends walked me in full sun, drinking millet beer, chewing on betel nuts, then walking back to my guest house and getting a raging headache from the combination of all those things that were new to me. I like to try everything when I visit another culture.

    Your description of your journey brought back fond memories. I wonder if any of the traditional “handmade” family compounds still exist there, because there was talk of replacing it with concrete block houses such as we were living in near the University.

    • Dear Henrietta, thanks for sharing your story and journey to Tamale. It does sound like it was an exciting and memorable experience! The transport options from Accra to Tamale have vastly improved, as have the roads, so I’m sure you would enjoy the journey even more if you were to visit today. The traditional family compounds do exist, especially in villages, but yes, in Tamale, many of the more modern architecture has taken root. Wishing you a great week wherever you are, and do let me know if you or your family ever makes it back to Ghana.

  6. Iddrisu Adam Reply

    Dear Jamila what a nice piece on projecting the North. I saw your article upon my literature search for my PhD in Agricultural Economics it shares interesting insight to me. kindly share some of your publication on food with me. Thank you.

    • Dear Iddrisu,

      Thanks for your comment. Great to know the article was of use to you. You can find all food related articles on this site here. All the best with your research!

  7. Tiyumba Abdul-mumin Reply

    Waww waww I really enjoyed reading and learning about my home land , I feel so proud coming from that side, in fact I feel like there is much for me to know about North, thanks for the education ,God bless you.

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