African food explosion
Zoe Adjonyoh: ‘The same barriers to the industry exist now as they did 20 years ago’
The entrepreneur started her UK restaurant Zoe’s Kitchen 10 years ago as well as catering for street food and at festivals. She has taken her cuisine to Berlin and the US celebrating the flavours and ingredients from West Africa to enjoy and share. For the most part the food has been unprocessed, organic and vegan.
Speaking at Amorevore Food & Wine Festival in Ibiza; ‘The African Food Explosion; Giving Heritage a Voice’, (October 26-28) she said her relationship with Ghanaian food started with her background; her father is Ghanaian and her mother is Irish.
“Fermented kenkey was the start of my food heritage identity thanks to my father’s relationship with Ghana. I used to watch my dad cooking and it was his way of going home and my way to connect with him and connect with that food culture, and all the other aspects of that culture,” she said.
“From a young age, I invited people to try the food from my dad’s heritage to cancel out that negative attitude towards African food and open a dialogue about that culture and that’s how I have continued in that way.”
Adjonyoh said growing up she remembers the media used to paint a negative picture of Africa at that time, and people knew it more for its poverty and famine.
“It was hard for me to contextualize my identity from that, trying to understand the relationship of poverty which did not correspond with the rich ingredients of the food. When I started my business I wanted to break down the stereotypes of the culture and people thinking the food was oily, not interesting, and bland bush meat,” she added.
She said her first foray into the business was selling street food at Hackney Arts Festival (Hackey WickED) seeing it as an opportunity to make some money out of her infamous ground peanut butter soup.
“The pot takes two to three hours to make, and the smell drew people in. The key for me was so many people had a genuine interest in the dish and it created a lovely social moment. Fast forward a year, and I returned to Hackey WickED turning my home into a restaurant,” added Adjonyoh.
“I have no culinary training. I didn’t know what I was doing but it was fun and people kept hassling me to do it. The business grew organically, very quickly. I was puzzled by why it was so popular. I started a Masters Degree at Goldsmiths University but half way through the course my Ghana kitchen was very distracting and eventually I took on a six-month residency in Berlin and got featured on German TV.
“The reason people were enjoying this food was because they hadn’t had access to it before and despite there being lots of West African restaurants in London they weren’t many spaces that invited people in.
“They catered more for their own community and the service wasn’t up to modern dining standards. There was a huge gap in representing this particular type of food and the people behind it.
“I didn’t have any ‘signposts’ to help me progress in what I was doing. There were no cook books, nor African chefs on TV, so as soon as I got an opportunity I started talking about an African food revolution.”
She said since then, she has seen ‘amazing positive changes’, with a host of new businesses representing restaurants across different parts of Africa, there is more African food on the supermarket shelves, and in the World food aisles, and she has seen more pop up restaurants and street food.
“A lot has happened in a condense amount of time, we have seen a rising number of people of colour, prominent in the African food industry working with ingredients from their heritage in the US and UK," she said.
“There are approximately 240 African restaurants in London, mainly from Ethiopia, but there are still a lot of countries unrepresented. There is still a long way to go compared to Chinese restaurants, but we are seeing an increase in awareness, there is even an online guide now on how to start an African food business.
“The problem for me is the same barriers to the industry exist now as they did 20 years ago, in raising finance, access to PR, the banks, there is still a nepotism in the food industry in the UK dominated by the white middle class. People of colour aren’t having access to the same networks that would help them get finance and investors.
“There are hundreds of restaurants that capitalise on the ethnic food boom, white men as head chefs, with white investors and for the most part they are completely disconnected to the food culture exploiting the industry, it seems there has been a whitewashing of these cuisines, and diners have stopped noticing or questioning the authenticity of those cuisines which means there is a danger that the heritage behind that food will get lost.”
Adjonyoh added, in the last 10 years Ghana for example has seen huge foreign investment with a burgeoning food scene and a growing middle class, but the downside of that is it now has five KFCs in Accra, two Burger Kings and a Pizza Hut.
“There is a huge growing middle class distancing themselves from traditional food, the middle classes are looking down on the stable cuisines, which is frightening to me because they are aspiring to Western influences and food,” she said.
“Ghana is 50 times the size of the UK and we need the huge multinational companies who have the resources to train, educate and build Africa’s infrastructure. They have a responsibility to do that. By creating wealthy enclaves, and destroying the food culture there we are losing native brains and many of the traditional ingredients we use, which are organic not processed.
“They are taking a beautiful rich diverse food and harmogenising it and it’s a problem. Ghana isn’t the only country affected.
“This isn’t about charity or poor Africans who need our help, but there should be some responsibility for the diaspora, and the chefs who can’t find the ingredients they need, collectively we need to have this conversation with stakeholders and government. Keeping that food and ingredients available and keeping that heritage alive.
“All the relevant subjects we talk about in the UK are relevant to Africa - sustainability, food waste.”
Adjonyoh said she now plans to launch the African Food Forum in 2020 to give an international platform to chefs across Africa to share and learn from each other and show Africa is producing great talent, and how to promote sustainability and overcome supply chain problems, celebrating the 54 countries and keeping their food heritage alive.
“Food is heritage, identity, and culture and we need to keep that alive and celebrate it,” she added.
Adjonyoh is currently working with Unilever to create recipes, for example, for ‘Red Red’ stew pots to create a vegan pot with natural ingredients working with Farm Africa.
“It was important for me to work with Unilever to have an authentic flavor, they had noble reasons for doing it, and they work exclusively with West African artists who design the packaging so the message is great. You have to bring in the right people from the ground upwards to make it right,” she said.