By Pearl Akanya Ofori, Bird
Losing his mother at age 10 and his father just two years later, Ghanaian chef and food stylist, Elijah Amoo Addo knew it would take a miracle for him to fulfil his dream of becoming a medical doctor. As he would find out two decades later, that ‘dark moment’ in his life had a silver lining.
“My parents were my backbone. Their death made my siblings and I feel that all hope was lost because we did not know who was going to finance our education,’’ he said.
The only boy among four children, difficult living conditions forced Elijah and one of his sisters to relocate to Nigeria, where they lived with an aunt. The remaining two sisters stayed back in Ghana with their grandmother, a pensioner.
While living in Lagos, Elijah, then 14, had to take up a job as a kitchen cleaner at Sphinz Oriental Restaurant to support his education.
‘’ I had to combine work with school because my aunt could not shoulder all our responsibilities- times were hard, “ he explained.
During one of his cleaning chores, Elijah unintentionally threw away a sauce prepared by the chef, thinking it was a waste. Infuriated, the foreign chef began throwing cutlery at him,
‘’My boss flared up and started shouting at me, throwing spoons and forks at me and questioning why I had thrown his sauce away,” said Elijah.
In response, Elijah teared up and retorted, “if my parents were still alive do you think I would be working as a kitchen cleaner while my colleagues are in school learning?”
That painful and emotional event ushered Elijah into the food industry. Instead of firing him, the chef apologized and decided to mentor him, giving him reading material on cooking.
At age 16, Elijah returned to Ghana to continue his education at the St Thomas Aquinas Senior High School, still with the hope of becoming a medical doctor.
“When I returned, I stayed with a relative who vowed to support me financially through school,” he said.
While in Ghana, Elijah continued to stay in touch with his former mentor, chef Ismail, giving him regular updates on his progress.
After completing senior high school, Elijah didn’t get into medical school. Disappointed, he informed his old chef, who invited him back to Lagos, this time not as a cleaner but as a chef de partie, meaning station chef in charge of a section of the kitchen.
Chef Ismail then decided to pay the tuition fee for Elijah to enrol on a six-month course at the Sphinz culinary training Institute to equip him with further cooking skills he needed to become a professional chef. When he graduated, he was posted to another branch of the restaurant at Apapa, Lagos. There, he met a Lebanese businessman who informed him of a plan to set up a restaurant in Ghana.
In 2010, Elijah made a second return to Ghana, this time to help his Lebanese boss establish Chase restaurant at Labone, one of Accra’s suburbs.
“I always had this urge to take care of my sisters in Ghana so when I got this opportunity to be one of the pioneer chefs at Chase restaurant, I took it because the pay was good,” said Elijah.
Despite these initial successes, an incident in 2011 would completely change his life. He had been observing for several days a mentally challenged man collecting discarded food from the hotel dustbins and disappearing with it into the streets of Accra, a big smile on his face.
So, one day Elijah gathered courage and followed the man and saw he was giving the food to other mentally challenged people on the streets.
The next day when he saw him at the dustbins he went over and asked him why he did it. The answer he got gave left him thinking for many days.
“I asked him his reason for doing that, and he said, ‘If I don’t do it who will?’” explained Elijah.
Troubled and at the same time inspired, Elijah, decided to use his position as secretary of the Greater Accra Chefs Association to influence other restaurants and supermarkets to donate their leftover food, or food close to expiration dates, for him to cook and distribute to the less privileged.
Chef Elijah was 21 at the time when he moved from Chase Restaurant to Alisa, one of the big hotels in Ghana. He worked at the Ridge branch of the hotel, mostly on morning shifts, which gave him time to prepare meals for his newfound “patrons”.
“I met a mentally derailed man and that was life-transforming. It made me identify what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life,” recollected Elijah, pointing at a picture of the ‘’mentally challenged’ man on his office laptop.
In 2013, he started the Chefs for Change Ghana Foundation, a vehicle he used to mobilise other chefs to support nutrition provision to low-income Ghanaian families.
The first people to benefit from this initiative were the inmates at the Accra Psychiatric hospital.
As his passion for cooking for the vulnerable grew, he resigned from Alisa Hotel and joined Burger and Relish, another restaurant in Accra as Head Chef. This new place gave him enough flexibility to combine his work as a chef with oversight of Chefs for Change.
When Elijah and Burger and Relish parted ways he used his compensation of $500 dollars to rent a one-unit store, partitioned it and opened his own eatery from there.
It was one of the most challenging times in Elijah’s career.
“I was married at the time with children, had lost my paid job and now I had to be on my own,” Elijah recounts.
Despite the setbacks, Elijah remained resilient and continued with his vision to feed the vulnerable.
In 2015, Chefs for Change became the Food for All Africa programme and in July 2017, at age 27, Elijah received the Queen Elizabeth Young Leaders Award for being one of the change-makers from Africa, in recognition of his work towards social development across the Commonwealth, and feeding the less privileged.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be honoured this way,” Elijah said.
Food for All Africa is West Africa’s first community food support service in Ghana, creating sustainable means of nutrition for low-income families, using mobile technology for food recovery and redistribution.
This recognition motivated Elijah to work even harder.
Today, Elijah, 31, runs his Food for All Programme from its headquarters in Accra where he has employed more than thirty people.
The organization currently operates in five regions of Ghana, serving over 5000 beneficiaries on a monthly basis.
In July 2021, Elijah opened a satellite warehouse in the Ashanti region, to reach more beneficiaries.
There is also a spinoff from Elijah’s programme. Today, his intervention is not only impacting the needy but also helping supermarkets to cut down on the cost of storage facilities for their organic waste.
“One of our donors who is into the food business told me how we have helped him to spend less on storage facilities for produce rejected by consumers. This is because what their clients reject, Food for Africa collects them and redistributes to people in dire need of them,” he explained.
Elijah’s work has attracted both local and international donors including the Dubai government, which recently supported Food for All Africa with more than $500,000 (five hundred thousand dollars) to support the program.
This is a big win for Elijah, who plans on extending operations to other African countries within the next five years.
Looking back, it’s difficult for Elijah to imagine how he managed to triumph in the face of several challenges.
“When I connect the dots it all makes sense now. I still hurt that I lost both parents at a very young age but if that had not happened, I am sure I would have ended up as a medical doctor and would never have met Chef Ismail who helped me back then in Lagos when I was a kitchen cleaner. If I had not lost my job at Burger and Relish, I would not have been challenged enough to work for myself. And if I had not met that mentally challenged man, Food for All Africa would never have materialized.”