Millet is a major source of energy and protein for over 130 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, providing up to 75% of total caloric intake in drought prone areas. Hausa koko is a fermented porridge made from millet flour that is a popular street food in Ghana. Unfortunately, it is prone to contamination with pathogens, including Staphyloccus species, Bacillus species and Escherichia coli which cause infections, stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting. However, if uncontaminated, it is an important and nutritious meal for vulnerable groups such as infants, people with reduced immune responses and the elderly. By sharing expertise, QIB researchers are enabling scientists in Ghana to identify ways to improve the quality and safety of the fermented product and safeguard vulnerable consumers.
Mrs Amy Atter from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Food Research Institute (FRI) and a first year Nutrition and Food Science PhD student at the University of Ghana, had a five-month work placement at Quadram Institute Bioscience (QIB) with Professor Arjan Narbard’s group. This placement was funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, which supports cutting-edge research and innovation to address issues faced by developing countries. During her visit she learnt a range of new methods for monitoring the complex microbial community associated with fermented foods that have equipped her for her future research on improving the food safety of Hausa koko.
Results and Impact
Many households use spontaneous fermentation, where the natural bacteria present in the water, on the millet, utensils and contact surfaces start the fermentation process. This process is delicate and can be hard to control. Starter cultures with known attributes have been in use since the 1890s and are known to promote a stable and predictable fermentation, even when conditions are not perfect. Starter cultures reduce the risk of unwanted mould, yeast and pathogenic microorganisms, increase the nutritional quality, improve texture, taste and slow the rate of spoilage.
One in forty people in Ghana suffer from food-borne illness every year. The economic burden due to associated mortality and lost productivity is significant. This work supports the ambition to reduce the occurrence of food borne-illness and its associated financial and healthcare burden in Ghana.
One common version of the Hausa koko recipe: Add water to powdered millet, leave it as a dough to ferment for up to three days then add clove buds, ginger and pepper before blending, straining and heating. Sugar is also often added to taste.
“My work placement at QIB has given me the opportunity to learn new methods that will strengthen my expertise and that of the CSIR-Food Research Institute that I will use to train my colleagues on my return” Mrs Amy Atter, CSIR-Food Research Institute (FRI).
Reliable reductions in pathogen content of Hausa koko would improve the health of all consumers, but particularly the impoverished and vulnerable in Ghanaian society who depend heavily on Hausa koko as a staple breakfast food. This work also represents an opportunity for local businesses to improve the quality of their commercial products and reduce the burden on local healthcare providers.
Without QIB expertise and the opportunity provided by funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund Mrs Atter would not have had access to the information and skills that she requires to improve the safety of Hausa koko porridge in Ghana. Mrs Atter will have improved career prospects after completing her studies and intends to share her knowledge by training her colleagues as a part of an Institute focus on updating the Microbiology Division at the Food Research Institute (FRI).
 Overview: Importance of Millets in Africa. A.B. Obilana. Published by ICRISAT, Nairobi, Kenya. http://www.afripro.org.uk/papers/Paper02Obilana.pdf
 Street foods in Accra, Ghana: How safe are they? P. Mensah et al. WHO bulletin 2002; 80;546-554. https://www.who.int/bulletin/archives/80(7)546.pdf
 Review of microbial food contamination and food hygiene in selected capital cities of Ghana. Cogent Food and Agriculture (2017), 3:1395102 https://www.cogentoa.com/article/10.1080/23311932.2017.1395102.pdf.
 Review of food safety in Ghana. Ministry of Food and Agriculture (2007). Published by The World Bank.