During a recent Food Tank and Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) panel, chefs from Western and Southern Africa talk about driving change through local food networks.
The panel is part of a series to explore BCFN’s seven cultural pyramids. These pyramids — intended to illustrate the impact of different food groups on the health of people and the planet — provide a model for sustainable eating adapted to regional diets around the world.
Moderated by Food Tank president Dani Nierenberg, the conversation features Ozoz Sokoh — Nigerian Food Explorer, culinary anthropologist, and author of the blog Kitchen Butterfly — and Mahlomola Thamae — executive chef of the catering business TM Innovations in Johannesburg and a member of Chefs with Compassion.
“Seasonal produce really supports health,” says Sokoh, noting that fruits high in Vitamin C, like citrus and iyeye, bloom in Nigeria’s cold months. “The understanding that the earth itself is in balance with humanity — having these things in season at a time when they’re most needed — is critical.”
Thamae talks about the healing powers of staples like fresh lemons, okra, garlic, and ginger, which are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
The chefs also discuss the importance of preserving food and avoiding food waste whenever possible. Chefs with Compassion, for instance, cooks with surplus ingredients rescued from the market. “You would be shocked, out of those foods, what we create,” Thamae says. He also talks about pickling leftover onions and vegetables in his own kitchen.
“Instead of discarding [foods], we can compost, we can create new use cases, and end up with a richer sense of the possibilities with these ingredients,” says Sokoh. She offers the examples of making tea from African star apple or powder from tomato skins to be used as a spice. Sokoh also points to fermentation, which can unlock nutrients.
Both Sokoh and Thamae emphasize the need to strengthen local food systems. “My approach to food is really from farm to table, and part of that is a reclamation of heritage crops,” says Sokoh. She highlights fonio and acha, which are both drought-resistant and nutrient-dense.
“The capitalist world wants one crop — a monopoly — such that there is an industrial approach to production. And what that does is that it destroys and diminishes local, indigenous, smaller farming systems.”
Thamae urges African chefs to lead the charge in reclaiming Indigenous foodways by prioritizing local products and cuisines. “It’s all about promoting our own sustainable ingredients — making sure that we’re going back to traditional ways of eating things.”
Thamae says chefs and consumers can stimulate local economies and drive sustainable practices by encouraging vendors to source fair, quality foods. “It’s all about making sure that we go to markets where we know the plant ritual or method of planting,” he says. “There are companies and farmers who are willing to learn and do things differently.”
Sokoh says there are a lot of misconceptions about African cuisine. “French cuisine is typically lauded and applauded and equivalent dishes in Nigerian and West African cuisine are derided and not respected,” she says, “And yet they have very similar elements.”
Sokoh also challenges the notion that meat consumption in Africa is a major driver of climate change. “When you look at the way and the approaches that West Africans consume meat, it is very different from the way North Americans consume meat,” she says, explaining that West Africans tend to eat smaller portions and use the entire animal.
“How do we explore these West African culinary traditions and techniques? How do we apply them to Global North or Western Style cuisine?” Sokoh asks. “There’s room for growth, and it’s not about cultural appropriation, it’s really about exchange.