The African locust bean tree (Parkia biglobosa) is a deciduous tree that grows 7-30 meters tall throughout Ghana. The pods (locust beans) of the tree average 30-40 cm long and are filled with up to 30 seeds. These seeds are fermented and made into a strong aromatic cakes sold as a food flavoring called dawadawa, often used in the preparation of most soups and stews and recommended for poor communities whose diets lacks proteins and vitamin B.
Only women produce dawadawa. In April and May they harvest the seedpods by pulling them down from the trees with a crook. The husks are removed and the seeds and pulp are placed into a wooden pestle and pounded to separate out the seeds from their covering, which is set aside and eaten as is or used as a flour to make porridge. The seeds are then laid out to dry in the sun for a day, and once dry can be used immediately or stored for future use. To make dawadawa, the dried seeds are sorted, removing any small stones or small unusable seeds. The selected seeds are then placed in a large aluminum pot and boiled in water to soften and separate the hard seed coat. The seeds are then trained and placed along with wood ash, which acts as an abrasive, into a mortar made from a hollowed out log. After several minutes of pounding, the seeds are again laid to dry in the sun. Once complete, they are poured from one container (usually a calabash gourd) to another to winnow away the seed coat and the seeds are washed again to remove any remaining wood ash. The seeds are boiled again for two hours, and then drained and placed in a fabric bag, which is weighted to press away excess water. The seeds are left for 72 hours, until the dawadawa is fully fermented. Women then shape the mixture into small balls to conserve and store the product.
Local beliefs prohibit women who are having their monthly menses to engage in this three-day production process, under the belief that they may somehow spoil the product. During the production process, whenever the seeds are transferred any distance, a sprig of a local herb called nuha nua and a red chili pepper is placed on top. The belief is that spirits and ghosts will want to partake of the seeds or dawadawa and spoil the batch. Ghosts and spirits dislike the hot peppers and nuha nua, and therefore will not disturb the seeds. Other local herbs used as talisman to ward off spirits are kashisago mo and ko yenkaa. Historically dawadawa was only used in northern Ghana, but the demand for and availability of commercial dawadawa is increasing in southern Ghana. Women who produce it transport it to the south to sell to generate income to take care of their families. It has also become an ingredient in commercially produced bouillon cubes sold in the area. However, dawadawa is made by individual families, and so the quantity produced each year is not exactly known.
Deforestation and land degradation threaten the semi-arid region of northern Ghana where the locust bean tree grows and where the trees are also harvested for firewood. Currently, a generic dawadawa is also being produced from soy beans that is easier to produce as it does not require the boiling time and is less labor intensive than the original dawadawa produced from the seeds of the Parkia biglobosa. The traditional dawadawa might eventually be replaced by the manufactured substitute. When this happens, the value that local farmers place on the tree is likely to decrease and this might push the tree into extinction in Ghana. Also, the manufactured ones will cause more families to buy, rather than prepare dawadawa at home, which helps to preserve the traditional production method.