Let’s chop: Food and business in Ghana

Written by Balloon Ghana Fellow Efua Mercer

“Nature gave us two cheeks instead of one to make it easier to eat hot food” – Old Ghanaian saying.

Fellows eating the fruit of a cocoa pod at an entrepreneur’s cocoa farm

Food is an important part of Ghana’s cultural tapestry; both from an economic and a cultural perspective.  The agricultural sector is the highest contributor to the country’s GDP & export earnings and employs the majority of population on a formal or informal basis. In spite of this agricultural output has steadily fallen since the 1960s when agriculture was first identified as the economic sector that would boost the economic development of the country. Staple crops include plantain, maize, cassava, oil palms, yam and cocoa. Cocoa has historically been a major source of export earnings. Ghana is the second largest cocoa-growing country in the world (2012 to 2015). Non-traditional exports include cashews, tuna, yams, banana and pineapple.

Ghanaians like to eat!

Sharing at least one of the day’s meals with friends or family members is customary and an invitation to eat at Ghanaian’s house is a common gesture of friendship or respect. In some cases, communal eating will involve all the dinner guests eating from the same bowl. Food will often be preceded by the offering of a bowl of water to wash your hands in.

It is common to have a heavy meal for breakfast, providing energy for what is bound to be a hot day. There is generally a heavy use of starchy carbohydrates and a fairly high use of pepper. Rice is consumed habitually. In fact, October 2015 saw Ghana set a new world record for cooking the world’s biggest pot of rice – 3.02 tons of the stuff! Jollof rice is a staple Ghanaian dish, often eaten with chicken, beef or fish and a little shito. Even Jamie Oliver has a recipe with his own twist on the traditional dish.

Ghanaians seem to have a bit of a sweet tooth too. Snacks such as biscuits, plantain chips or bofrot are readily available through street vendors, who carry them around in boxes perched on their heads. One of the fellows commented that everywhere he turned he seemed to witness someone either selling, preparing or eating food.

Small shacks sell local meals at peak times of the day, once they have run out though they close and there is no guarantee that the same vendor will be in the same place or open for business the next day, so get it while you can! Food can also be eaten from a local restaurant or chop bar, only really recommended if you are not in a hurry to eat.

Craving for food from home

Despite the abundance of street food, Ghanaians interviewed preferred home cooked meals to meals cooked by food vendors. Three key reasons were cited: quantity (you are more likely to serve yourself with a desirable portion); taste (mama’s meals are best); hygiene and sanitation (you know how and where the food has been prepared when eating at home). It is also more economical to cook your own meals. As ever the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

The topic of food was also very close to the heart of the fellows. As you would expect with an extended period of time away from home new cravings sprung up every week. From Marmite (available but at a price high enough to suppress the craving for another week), and McDonalds (yes, really) to very specific meals: ceviche, tacos or roast rack of lamb with creamy mash and a lemon and rosemary jus – anyone? In one of the more bizarre conversations a fellow claimed that he was craving a bacon butty so much that even the water was beginning to taste like bacon!

Between us we tried a number of local dishes most common in the Cape Coast/Elmina region. The prize for the most popular meal would go to “red red” a bean stew eaten with fried plantain, sometimes a little spicy, sometimes with a little fish and quite easily accessible from street vendors in Cape Coast. Fruit is also abundant and greatly enjoyed. Some fellows were lucky enough to enjoy a home cooked meal or two and others were lucky enough to experience local dishes as a result of their entrepreneur’s business or idea.

Food as a business

One of our entrepreneurs, Priscilla, was originally interested in setting up a healthy food restaurant in her home town of Tema. We discussed the importance of nutrition and healthy food in the context of the increasing prevalence of sufferers of illnesses such as diabetes and high cholesterol in Ghana.  A small selection of Ghanaians cited the main requirements of a meal as being tasty and filling, nutrition in most cases came lower in pecking order of priorities. People often start their days before six in the morning, the coolest part of the day. As a result of starting so early, food that keeps people energetic and fuller for longer seems to be most popular. Heavy meals such as fufu or rice & stew are popular for breakfast.

We tested a couple of recipes with Priscilla, in her small university campus kitchen and tested them out on other student hall residents.  After deciding that dishes such as mango & pepper salsa and banana & peanut gari balls might be too exotic for student taste buds, she decided that contributing to a bigger cultural shift in healthy eating needed to be a long term plan.

To fulfil short term goals and make use of her skills as a chef Priscilla decided to cook  Ghanaian gravy/stew, in large portions, to be sold to university students who did not have the means or the inclination to cook for themselves (primarily the male population!). This tomato-based stew can have fish or meat added to it and be eaten with rice or many other starches. Initial testing showed a high demand so we decided startby offering the project to a select few who expressed an interest first, to avoid over-burdening Priscilla with orders.


Priscilla’s “finger lick’n” stew, with tomatoes, vegetables and pepper

Winifred is a food vendor from a village called Abeye, in the Cape Coast area. Her speciality is baked goods, particularly chips, biscuits and meat pies, which all sell out daily. Winifred’s production, however, was restricted by her reliance on the communal oven. This industrial oven could be used by anyone in the village for 10GHC a day in theory, but in reality was only available for use on one day during the six week programme, apparently due to technical reasons. The first thing we did was try to reduce Winifred’s reliance on the oven by increasing her production of spring rolls and expanding her product range to non-baked goods. The school kids love her spring rolls and she pleased the adults too by adding spring rolls filled with cabbage to her already popular offerings of bean and macaroni fillings.

Winifred frying her popular spring rolls


Tom Brown – the Ghanaian porridge with the mystery name

Two entrepreneurs were involved in the production of breakfast cereals, specifically Tom Brown, a cereal based breakfast food particular to Ghana. Dorcas is a student at the University of Cape Coast who believed that there was a gap in the market for filling breakfast foods that could be eaten on the go – especially for students who begin classes at 6.30am! The nutritional benefits of her product are an added bonus. She provides a ready-to-eat powder that you simply add water to. Each sachet is one serving. There are four different Tom Brown bases offered: soya beans; brown rice; wheat; and corn. The least favourite of the four was corn but they added chocolate to the corn base and found that people were willing to purchase this mix without even trying it. Chocolate sells!

Bennett is an entrepreneur, whose mother and sister make and sell a special blend of Tom Brown that includes cowpeas and soya beans. He has been making this special blend for himself and his friends for years and decided eventually to sell it commercially. The fellows tried Bennett’s special blend and enjoyed it with sugar and salt (these being customary additions to Tom Brown, as well as honey and evaporated milk). It initially seemed as though people were not much more adventurous with toppings and condiments but the team decided to test some additions on Bennett’s gospel choir group. So the standard hot, ready-to-serve mixture was served with a choice of: chopped banana; crumbled malt biscuits; ground peanuts; evaporated milk; salt; sugar; honey; milo powder; cinnamon; or nutmeg. The most favoured topping was sugar with cinnamon. It was a popular move and sold out that day!

Branding created by the fellows for Dorcas’ Tom Brown and Bennett selling his Tom Brown during testing

Meat from the bush

Anthony’s family had a grasscutter farm when he was younger and has he has always wanted to follow in their footsteps. A grasscutter – formally known as a ‘greater cane rat’ can be found in riverbanks and plantations across Sub-Saharan Africa. This bush meat is considered to be a delicacy and is expensive to buy compared to other types of meat, due to lack of supply. Farm-reared grasscutters are a trusted source of bush meat, as well as producing animals that are healthier and larger in size than those found in the wild.

Perdie, Andre and Benjy eating grasscutter soup

Food glossary 

  • Bofrot – fried snack similar to a doughnut
  • Omo tuo – rice balls in soup
  • Fufu – one of Ghana’s national dishes it is made with cassava flour, plantain or a mixture of both, pounded into a doughy consistency and eaten with a peppery soup that will be groundnut or tomato based and accompanied by meat or fish.
  • Jollof rice – rice cooked in a seasoned tomato based sauce
  • Shito – black pepper sauce made from dried fish and varying combinations of tomatoes, garlic ginger, pepper and other spices. Used as a condiment
  • To chop – to eat (a chop bar is a place where people eat)