(CNN) — Fatmata Binta has lived in many places throughout her life, but wherever she is, food is always her home. Her passion for cooking began when she was just five years old.
Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Binta grew up learning the customs of the Fulani people – one of the largest nomadic groups in Africa. She remembers spending much of her childhood in the kitchen helping her mother and grandmother prepare traditional Fulani meals. “I grew up watching them bring people together through food,” she said.
Fatmata Binta prepares a meal for guests at her Dine on a Mat experience in Accra, Ghana.
“It was overwhelming in a very good way,” Binta told CNN. “It means that everything we’ve been working towards for the past few years is finally being celebrated and recognized, and it’s just the beginning of so many other things that are going to impact lives.”
She added that being the first African to win this prestigious title “means so much, not only to me,” but to other “aspiring chefs… (and) people who work tirelessly behind the scenes.”
Every dish Binta serves pays tribute to her Fulani heritage. There are around 20-45 million Fulani people, many of whom are spread across West Africa.
Binta says their plant-based cuisine, which often includes sun-dried vegetables and ancient grains such as fonio and millet, is heavily influenced by their nomadic lifestyle. She described sharing meals as a child with Fulani elders, saying they would sit on mats and “bind over food” and discuss morals and values — a sense of community she has seen change over the years.
“It breaks my heart to see it slowly disappear,” she said. “These days we’re ‘grab and go’, everyone’s in a hurry. I feel like we need to go back and connect with our roots…especially food traditions.”
Binta describes her dishes as “bold”, “authentic” and with “plenty of flavours.” She puts a modern twist on traditional recipes she learns while visiting nearby Fulani communities. On one trip, local villagers taught her how to use cow’s milk to make Wagashi – a soft, mild cheese.
Binta (left) visits a Fulani village in Ghana to source local produce and find inspiration for her culinary Dine on a Mat experience.
Back in Accra, Binta infuses the cheese with smoke, drizzles it with a honey glaze and grills it, before pairing it with plantains and serving it at the pop-up. “It’s one of our crowd favorites,” she said.
Customers are then taken on a “journey” through a multi-course meal. Binta explains each dish while the diners sit on mats and eat with their hands. She believes that food has a “universal language” and eating in traditional surroundings opens a way for connection. “Sitting on the mats, it gives you compassion,” she said. “I think that’s powerful.”
“I want to change the narrative of the way people see the Fulani…I want anyone sitting on my mat to leave as an ambassador for the Fulani people,” Binta added.
After winning the €100,000 ($100,000) prize, Binta said she hopes to expand her Dine on a Mat experience to more countries and “collaborate with many African chefs.”
Empowering Fulani women
Proceeds from “Dine on a Mat” will also go to Binta’s Fulani Kitchen Foundation. Binta is proud of her heritage, but also says Fulani tradition means women are often seen mainly as wives and mothers.
“I want them to be engaged and have something to look forward to and live for,” she said.
Binta said she narrowly avoided getting married when she was 16 and has since advocated for early marriage.
Her foundation aims to empower women across Fulani communities by addressing their social, educational and community needs. So far, the foundation has helped more than 300 families in 12 villages in Ghana, she added.
Now Binta says she plans to move to Daboya in northern Ghana, where she has bought four acres of land to build a community center to support Fulani women. “I really want to impact (these) issues in a positive way so these girls can have a place where they know they can do so much for themselves,” she said.