Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be vegan in Africa? What should you expect when traveling or moving to an African city? We have Vegan Leaders in several African countries (South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Mauritius, Tanzania and Morocco), and we hope to enlighten you through this interview with three remarkable professionals.
Hakeem Jimo is a public relations and communications consultant, as well as an entrepreneur responsible for two landmark vegan innovations in Nigeria: he founded Nigeria’s first vegan and vegetarian restaurant (Veggie Victory), and recently launched VegMeat, Nigeria’s first vegan faux meat product!
James Leung Yin Kow, CFA, is an investment finance professional in Mauritius, working as a Managing Director of Skanda Business Consultants (expertise in M&A and corporate valuations), fund manager and member of financial oversight councils.
Ricardo Jorge Fernandes Marques, based in South Africa, has worked in senior HR/legal roles with a prominent Fortune 500 manufacturing company, and now fully devotes himself to his vegan venture (Oh!Poppyseed) and his management and strategy consultancy firm (Evolve Advisory).
What is it like to live vegan in your country (general perception, availability of vegan alternatives, etc.)?
Hakeem:A vegan lifestyle is definitely a new phenomenon in Nigeria, and in a way it is “reversing” the meat obsession trend seen over the past decades. In our grandparents’ generation, meat used to be rare but it became a key, prestigious part of a meal. International food chains like KFC have come to Nigeria to exploit that.
Those who follow a vegan lifestyle learned the idea from abroad. There is no real local vegan culture or support network. The closest thing to a veg tradition here comes from a few churches like the 7th Day Adventist. Ethical reasons and animal compassion unfortunately are not yet a main driver to switch to a veg diet. But with the alarming rise of hypertension/blood pressure and heart diseases due to the “modern” diet, people are becoming more interested in vegan eating for health reasons. Events like our 3-years-old vegan festival LagosVegFest spread the message, especially reaching an eager audience of children and young people.
Most African markets are fortunately not swamped with processed food. People still cook fresh food, and there are plenty of fruits and vegetables to make fantastic vegan meals like beans and plantain, yam with tomato stew or different spinach stews. Plus veganizing the different dishes in Nigeria or West Africa can be really fun and easy.
However, very few vegan ready-to-eat products are available. We have started to see imports of plant based milks made from soy beans, rice and even almonds. Until we launched VegMeat this summer, there was no meat substitute. People are amazed how much it takes like meat, and how affordable and easy to use it is.
James:Being vegan in Mauritius is quite challenging because it is not widespread here. For example, waiters in restaurants normally understand the vegetarian concept but not really the vegan one. People here view veganism as an “extreme” ideology - some may understand the rationale behind it but still find it difficult to adhere to as it is inconvenient in the everyday life.
A variety of vegan essentials are available such as locally made tofu sold in supermarkets and freshly made soya milk sold in Asian/Chinese markets. There is also soya milk and other more expensive non-dairy milk (almond, rice) imported from South Africa. Gourmet and deli shops do have vegan products but they are considered luxury products.
Depending on the season, many types of fresh fruits (local & imported) and vegetables are available. In supermarkets, lentils, beans and dholls are readily available and we have imported and locally made vegan meat products though they tend to be expensive. Also, stores generally lack any vegan alternatives for biscuits, cookies and snacks.
Ricardo:Living vegan in South Africa was difficult until recent years when more plant-based products became more available. It is still nowhere near as prevalent as we would like, though! Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town have more options than the rest of the country. Our meat-eating culture still views veganism in a negative light, but with more alternatives available and more people talking about it, it is slowly becoming accepted.
Tell us about your background. Where are you from, and how did you end up in your current location?
Hakeem:My father is Nigerian, my mother German. I was born and raised near Hamburg, Germany.
The idea of a launching vegan start-up came on an Asian trip four years ago, when I enjoyed all the vegan restaurants found via the HappyCow App. Back in Nigeria, the same App did not even have a single result. Also, ordering special vegan meals at restaurants was frustrating and stressful. That motivated me to open our first vegan and vegetarian restaurant, and later launch the first local vegan meat substitute.
James:I was born in Mauritius and finished my secondary education locally before earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in Canada. Upon my return to Mauritius, I worked here to gain experience in investment finance while obtaining my Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation.
Ricardo:I was born in Portugal and moved to South Africa with my family when I was three years old. I finished a law school after my bachelors’ degree, and started working as an Industrial Relations Officer within HR at Saint-Gobain, eventually working my way up to Business Partner. I realized that my passion was business so I furthered my studies through Henley Business School and started my own vegan business (Oh!Poppyseed) and a management consultancy (Evolve Advisory), both of which are my focus at the moment.
What inspired you to embrace the vegan lifestyle?
Hakeem:I became a vegetarian in the early 90’s while studying at a university. Five years ago, I made the switch to a vegan lifestyle. I was already intuitively replacing diary with soymilk or almond milk but becoming a vegan was more of a deliberate ethical and environmental decision. Recently available scientific health research did the rest to convince me. Now I am loving it and I am excited to see all the possibilities of an entirely plant-based diet.
James:I embraced the vegan lifestyle to prevent the suffering and atrocities committed on animals. I strongly believe in the law of karma where for every action, there is a reaction. When you eat a meat product, even if you did not participate in its killing, you are partly responsible for it and hence your karma piles up. What I have on my cruelty-free plate reflects what I bear on my conscience. While for many people it is considered as a gustatory sacrifice, I consider a vegan lifestyle as a personal step forward. The sudden rise of veganism around the world seems largely due to its health benefits (although I am cautious about over-promising on that front; a vegan diet is not a magical cure-all and it requires some nutritional planning.)
As a side note, when I adopted a vegan diet, I noticed a gradual but significant change in my ability to handle work pressure and stress. The compassion that I developed for animals also increased my compassion for my fellow human beings. I became more understanding and empathic at work. Additionally, a plant-based diet calms the mind, making me less prone to irritation and anger.
When I have business lunch or dinner, I always find a vegan option. If someone learns about my vegan choices, I make sure that he or she understands my rationale for adopting such a lifestyle.
Ricardo:I was a typical “carnist” about 8 years ago, and would tease vegans and vegetarians about their “silly” ways. I then met my future wife who was vegetarian. She helped me make the connection between a dog and a pig and a cow, and I slowly weaned myself off meat. However, being a stubborn person, I only agreed to do this because there were some meat alternatives available here (Fry’s Family Foods). After a couple of years I read Eating Animals and watched Earthlings, and have been vegan for 5 years.
When I worked at Saint-Gobain as an HR Business Partner, I often experienced the struggle of trying to be seen as a professional rather than a “hippie tree hugger.” This has inspired me to start a business that I believe will help change the perception of veganism in South Africa. Oh!Poppyseed aims to assist people in living healthy, joyful lives through mindful consumerism by providing plant-based products as well as education initiatives.
As a business professional, what do you think the vegan movement needs to do better or differently?
Hakeem:I think the vegan movement needs to be more accessible to a broader society. Often in cities like Portland, Berlin or New York with such a strong vegan culture, I get the impression that a vegan lifestyle is still mostly for the upper class. I believe our products need to become more accessible - especially for the less privileged. In Africa, it is good that the middle class people who travel to developed countries can help bring these trends in. But the lower tier of society is enormous, and that’s where the real impact is. That’s why we created our VegMeat product in Nigeria – we wanted to provide a meat substitute that is affordable for the masses.
James:Different strategies should be used in different countries depending on the extent of the vegan lifestyle awareness among the population. For instance, in countries with low penetration rate of veganism, showing strong images of animal atrocities should be used along with scientific evidences on how animal protein and dairy products can result in a myriad of diseases. In countries where veganism is common, articles promoting veganism can be the primary tool. More scientific facts should be given on the unnecessary consumption of animal protein for the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).
As said above, very often people refuse this lifestyle for the sake of convenience. More vegan products, at a lower price, need to be made available and promoted across a country.
Ricardo:The movement needs a more professional and objective approach with a lot less emotion behind it. I know it sounds contradictory, since veganism is an emotive issue, but people are busy with their own issues and don’t want to hear us “hippies” spewing out “vegan propaganda,” especially when it is done emotively. When vegans get upset or worked up, people get defensive and feel justified in their positions. I have found that a predominantly objective approach, while providing solutions to the problems raised, tends to work best. Sometimes it takes longer than we would like, but we need to persevere. People will get it eventually. I am proof of that.