CNN  — 

Fatmata Binta has lived in many places throughout her life, but no matter where 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 recalls 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.

Now based in Ghana’s capital city of Accra, Binta, 37, is carrying on that tradition. In 2018, she launched Dine on a Mat – a pop-up restaurant that has traveled to cities in Europe, the US and Africa, giving people around the world a chance to experience her home culture. She also started the Fulani Kitchen Foundation to empower and support women in rural communities across Ghana and West Africa.

Fatmata Binta prepares a meal for guests of her Dine on a Mat experience in Accra, Ghana.

Those ventures led Binta to receive one of her highest honors to date. In June, she won the Basque Culinary World Prize. Created in 2016 by the namesake culinary center in Spain, the award is given to a chef who is using their talent and creativity to transform society through food. The organizers said Binta was chosen out of 1,000 nominees for her “ability to showcase sustainable nomadic culinary culture and explore the diaspora of West African cuisine” through Dine on a Mat.

“It was overwhelming in a very good way,” Binta told CNN. “It means everything we’ve been working towards over the past years, it’s finally being celebrated and recognized, and it’s only the beginning of so many other things that’s going to impact lives.”

She added that being the first African to win this prestigious title, “means so much, not just for me,” but for other “aspiring chefs… (and) people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes.”

Fulani cuisine

Every dish Binta serves up pays homage to her Fulani heritage. There are about 20-45 million Fulani people, many of whom are dispersed across West Africa.

Binta says their plant-based cuisine, which often includes sun-dried vegetables and ancient grains like fonio and millet, is highly influenced by their nomadic lifestyle. She described sharing meals as a child with Fulani elders, saying they would sit on mats and “bond over food” discussing morals and values – a sense of community she’s seen change over the years.

“It breaks my heart to see that disappear slowly,” she said. “These days we are ‘grab and go,’ everybody is in a hurry. I feel like we need to go back and connect to our roots … especially food traditions.”

Binta describes her dishes as “bold,” “authentic,” and featuring “plenty of flavors.” 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 ingredients and find inspiration for her Dine on a Mat culinary experience.

Back in Accra, Binta infuses the cheese with smoke, drizzles it with a honey glaze and grills it, before pairing with plantains and serving at her pop-up. “It’s one of our crowd favorites,” she said.

Customers are then taken on a “journey” throughout a multi-course meal. Binta explains each dish as diners sit on mats and eat with their hands. She believes food has a “universal language” and eating in a traditional setting opens a path for connection. “Sitting on the mats, it grounds you … it brings compassion,” she said. “I think that’s powerful.”

“I want to change the narrative of the way people see Fulani … I want anyone that sits on my mat to leave as an ambassador for the Fulani people,” Binta added.

After winning the €100,000 ($100,000) award, Binta said she hopes to expand her Dine on a Mat experience to more countries and “collaborate with a lot of African chefs.”

Empowering Fulani women

Proceeds from “Dine on a Mat” will also go toward Binta’s Fulani Kitchen Foundation. Binta is proud of her heritage, but also says Fulani tradition means that women are often seen principally as wives and mothers.

“I want them to get involved and have something to look forward to and to live for,” she said.

Binta said she narrowly avoided getting married when she was 16 and has since advocated against early marriage.

Her foundation aims to empower women across Fulani communities by meeting their social, educational and community needs. So far, the foundation has helped more than 300 families across 12 villages in Ghana, she added.

Now Binta says she is planning to move to Daboya in northern Ghana, where she has purchased 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 that these girls can have a space where they know they can do so much for themselves,” she said.

Watch the full African Voices episode featuring Binta here.