When Sedjro Ahouansou was a kid growing up in the West African country of Benin, he loved eating a traditional dish called piron, a starchy accompaniment made of cassava flour that's served with meat and savory foods.
Now a chef, Ahouansou serves the dish at his restaurant Chill N Grill in Cotonou, Benin's largest city – only he's reinvented it as a Japanese-style dessert. He adds fluffy white coconut flakes to the piron, shapes it like a maki roll and fills it with warm fried pineapple.
Ahouansou was featured in the Netflix documentary series High On The Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, which explores the African roots of African American food. But there's another theme: the renaissance of African food on the continent. Ahouansou is part of a movement of chefs and restaurateurs in Benin who are elevating and celebrating the country's traditional cuisine. Diners benefit – and so does the economy. There's an emphasis on cooking with ingredients from local farmers and vendors.
Chefs like Ahouansou can make a real impact on local food systems, says Paul Newnham, founder of the Chef's Manifesto, a project that helps over 1,000 chefs from 90 countries engage with food suppliers, producers and retailers in their regions. He is also director of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 2's Advocacy Hub, which focuses on hunger and nutrition.
"Chefs are uniquely placed in our food system to lead and inspire change – change in their kitchens, directly in their communities where they work and in their countries," he says.
One way that Ahouansou is inspiring change is by reimagining traditional dishes at his restaurant, which he describes as an African-Western-fusion steakhouse. In addition to playing around with piron, he's come up with a new version of atassi, a humble dish of beans and rice, tomatoes and boiled eggs. He uses breaded eggs to add a new texture.
His goal is to show that Beninese food – not just American, European and Asian food – is fine fare for a fine-dining establishment. "I want to transform this familial cuisine into a gastronomic cuisine," he says.
Other local chefs, like Valerie Vinakpon, a Beninese chef and cookbook author also featured on High On The Hog, hopes these new recipes will get Beninese excited about their own food.
At her restaurant, Saveurs du Benin in Cotonou, she focuses on novel presentation of Beninese dishes. Carrots are arranged into a vase of flowers on a bed of rice; a salad is shaped into a nest of shredded vegetables with blooming boiled egg flowers.
"It's really to encourage people to adopt Beninese cuisine because people have abandoned our traditional plates in favor of modern Western dishes," she says.
These tweaks also serve a deeper purpose, says Vinakpon. When chefs, food vendors, restaurateurs and home cooks buy native ingredients, they're supporting the people in the region who harvest, process and distribute these foods.
"Beninese cuisine is linked to the local economy. The more we consume locally produced foods the better," she says. For this reason, yam and cassava, two of Benin's biggest commodities, are star players on Ahouansou and Vinakpon's restaurant menus.
Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese chef, former Iron Chef contestant and cookbook author, has seen firsthand what can happen when restaurateurs put traditional ingredients on their menus.
He's a proponent of fonio, a protein-rich, nutty-tasting millet grain cultivated and consumed in West Africa. He's served it at his restaurants in New York City, Lagos, Nigeria, and Dakar, Senegal. He's included recipes for it in his cookbooks (such as The Fonio Cookbook). And he even started a fonio business. His company, Yolele Foods, sells bags of the grain at Western retailers like Whole Foods and Amazon. "Like couscous," the packaging exclaims.
These activities have helped drive up consumer demand for the grain over the past few years, benefiting the West African economy, says Thiam. And business is growing. Currently, he works with 1,400 women-run cooperatives in rural West Africa to grow, harvest and process fonio for his company. Next year he is expanding to work with 20,000 more women farmers in north and central Mali. In three years, his goal is to purchase fonio from a network of 120,000 farmers in the region.
"Women are benefiting from it," says Thiam. "Those women are the breadwinners and have more means now to send their kids to school, to eat better food."
Ahouansou sees potential for similar success in Benin. It would be great, he says, if Beninese manufacturers could invest in selling prepared foods that are currently imported from other countries. "There are a lot of things that we could be producing ourselves, like ham, trout pate or halal meats, which are not yet made in Benin."
Or maybe, he speculates, farmers could turn passion fruit, which grows in Benin, into a major commercial crop, exporting fresh fruits or processing them into jams and jellies.
But studies have shown it's tough for artisanal food vendors in Benin to reach these goals. A 2020 survey looked at 27 women-run microenterprises in Cotonou that produce atta, a cowpea fritter sold as a street snack. The researchers found that the women were struggling to expand their businesses. They wanted more efficient machines to make the fritters but typically couldn't get loans to buy them. And the women in the survey said they'd received little support from nonprofit groups, microfinancing institutions or the government.
Thiam himself bumped up against these problems when he was working with West African fonio farmers. They wanted everything from better seeds to better pathways to the marketplace but weren't getting help.
So he took action. He worked with agricultural research institutes in Mali and Senegal and with Cornell University on farm matters to get them what they needed.
"That's something that the restaurants and the entrepreneurs locally in Benin will have to do," he says. "Waiting for the government for guidance and support is not realistic when we know how slow bureaucracy can be."
For Vinakpon, she knows that change is possible.
Saveurs du Benin is one of the most popular places to eat in Cotonou, but it wasn't always that way.
She thinks back to the restaurant's early days. At first, customers were "shocked," she says, by the sprigs of parsley or tomato rosettes she used to adorn fish and meat. "They asked me, 'why would you present our dish differently? Why would you touch what's traditional, what's historic?' But I pushed through."
Tiffany Onyejiaka is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., who focuses on public health, science and social justice. Follow her on Twitter @TEOnyejiaka.