Fatmata Binta has tried many different jobs, but this one definitely fits her like a glove. The chef, born in Sierra Leone, now based in Ghana has placed Fulani cuisine at the heart of her pop-up restaurant and a foundation for women in rural areas of West Africa. For her efforts, she has been awarded first place by the prestigious 2022 Basque Culinary World Prize.
Speaking to RFI last week, Fatmata Binta said: "I'm very thrilled because this is going to create a safe space, the dream, the drive. All the things we've been working towards over the years are going to come to reality finally. So I've been emotional, excited, everything, and also thankful."
She explains enthusiastically how she's spent the past few years pouring her energy into her "Dine on a Mat" pop up restaurant and her Fulani Kitchen Foundation, both centred around her family's West Africa roots.
It's been a slow process - interrupted by Covid - but her efforts have paid off, enchanting the jury of the 2022 Basque Culinary World Prize.
Created in 2016 by the Basque Government and the Basque Culinary Centre, the coveted prize goes to chefs from around the world who are using their talent and creativity to create positive change.
Bring back traditions
Binta's "Dine on a Mat" initiative sprang from a desire to reconnect with the traditions of the Fulani, the largest nomadic tribal group in the world.
"I grew up eating on mats. Fulanis in general dine on the mats but also in West Africa it's a big part of our culture, especially in rural areas, people eat with their hands and sit on the floor," she explains.
She noticed that the pace of modern life was slowly but surely wiping away traces of the happy childhood she remembered, among relatives who would teach her and her siblings etiquette such as sitting straight, waiting to be served meat, not wasting food and not talking with a full mouth.
"I wanted to bring back that tradition and educate people about it. When I look back, my fondest memories up to now are when I was growing up and going to villages," she says, adding that her love of food and cooking came from spending time with her grandparents who owned restaurants.
When she started her own restaurant in the Ghanaian capital Accra, she wanted to learn more about other Fulanis across West Africa who she says are "similar in so many ways but are also different" - each tribe taking inspiration from their surroundings.
Fulani cuisine is influenced by their nomadic lifestyle, which involves sundrying ingredients such as maize, fonio, millet spices and raising cattle to slaughter and sell at markets.
Building a centre for women
Wanting to explore this further, she set out to visit communities across Africa, spending time with local women and learning their recipes. She would take the ingredients back, where they becamle a hit with her customers.
Having spent time in the field, Binta could also see the difficulties women faced, such as lack of water.
"It didn't feel right to go in there, then leave and ignore their challenges. So I wondered how I could collaborate with these women in a different way without just giving them handouts because that's not how you solve a problem in a sustainable way."
That's how the Foundation came about. Starting with small projects that grew into larger ones, she is now planning to invest her €100,000 prize money into building a centre in the north of Ghana where she has already acquired four acres of land.
The centre will serve as a space for women to do arts and crafts and grow fonio that will be packaged up and sold back into the community.
Binta admits that it has taken some time to finally settle into her true calling. Her mother fondly nicknamed her "touch and leave" when she was younger because of her tendency to flit from one thing to another.
After completing international relations studies, she went to culinary school in Kenya, then spent quite a bit of time dabbling in other jobs in marketing and television, but now she is home at last.
"I'm using my life experiences and my background, everything that is connected to me deeply so I would say I'm putting heart and soul into everything. I always believe that if you want to promote something, you have to love it first, when you love it, it's easy to promote it."