Veganism isn’t new for Africans—it’s a return to our roots, say these chefs and entrepreneurs

The vegan dishes of Addis in Cape in Cape Town
The vegan dishes of Addis in Cape in Cape Town
Image: Addis in Cape
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South Africans love meat. Ask anyone what our national dish is: they’ll probably say a braai or shisa nyama, which in Zulu literally translates to ‘burn meat’.

However, the staple foods of South Africa are not meat-based. It’s said that Nelson Mandela’s favorite meal was umngqusho, or samp and beans, a traditional Xhosa dish made from white maize and sugar beans.

South Africa’s modern-day vegan movement has been concentrated in Cape Town with a small elite following, but now more South Africans, beyond that privileged group, are embracing the trend and finding innovative solutions to make their diet affordable and sustainable.

“More Africans are going back to being vegan, not becoming vegan,” says chef Nicola Kagoro from the culinary movement African Vegan on a Budget. The company hosts cooking classes and pop-up restaurants to showcase and educate customers about budget-friendly vegan African cuisine. Kagoro hosts ‘Dinners with Chef Cola’ in Harare and Cape Town.

When she first started hosting vegan dinners in Harare, finding willing patrons was a challenge. Kagoro had to charge just one dollar per person to encourage attendance, and show people that veganism isn’t difficult.

Vegan by default at Addis in Cape, Cape Town
Vegan by default at Addis in Cape, Cape Town
Image: Addis in Cape

Kagoro explains that our ancestors ate meat rarely: “Veganism originated in Africa. We keep sheep and cattle, but back in the day, when we slaughtered these animals, it was only for special reasons like a ceremony or a celebration like a wedding, the birth of a child, or a funeral.”

She believes that through colonization, and the monetization of cattle, Africans started eating more meat, and abandoned traditional plant-based diets. “We’ve forgotten our roots and our culture. Our grandmothers and great grandmothers had beautiful healthy diets, and even if they incorporated meat in those diets, it wasn’t as much as now.”

Kenn Ayere, owner of Hombaze Restaurant in Johannesburg, shares a similar perspective: “Our ancestors ate a lot of organic food. Food that was not tampered with. Food that was not produced in laboratories; and that gave them a lot of good health.” Ayere says Hombaze serves food from West, East and Central Africa, “a place where you eat home food, as your grandmother would have made it.”

Even though the restaurant serves meat, it also boasts an entire vegan menu. Ayere explains that many traditional African meals are already vegan: yam and vegetables, Ghanaian beans and plantains, South African pap and chakalaka, and Kenyan chapati and vegetable stew. These everyday African meals contain no meat, dairy, or eggs.

Similarly, many traditional Ethiopian dishes are vegan. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians observe 180 fasting days a year, and on those days they eat mostly vegan meals. “Growing up in Ethiopia, people are not attached to meat. The daily food is vegan food. They don’t really eat meat because it is expensive. Vegan is daily life,” explains Senait Mekonnen, owner of Addis in Cape Restaurant in Cape Town’s central business district.

Beans and fried plantains at Hombaze, Johannesburg
Beans and fried plantains at Hombaze, Johannesburg
Image: Hombaze

When it comes to vegan cuisine, Mekonnen specializes in comfort food. Hearty dishes like misir wat, a spiced red lentil stew; or shiro wat, a chickpea flour stew, are popular choices on her menu. She explains that vegan cafés usually use expensive nut-based products; but Ethiopian meals are made with affordable ingredients like lentils, chickpeas and spinach and is therefore more accessible to lower income customers.

Veganism has been on the rise in the richer countries like the United States and the UK as consumers become more conscious and concerned about the environmental impact of eating meat and growing dietary and health worries. The public perception of veganism is believed to have shifted. “The old-fashioned idea was that veganism is anhedonic lifestyle based on grim restrictions, requiring immense discipline and sacrifice,” says Cambridge University philosopher Sandy Grant.

Once a month, Addis in Cape hosts a forum discussion for environmental organization Talking Tree. Mekonnen has noticed that meeting attendance is no longer overwhelmingly white, with members coming from around the Western Cape, including Khayelitsha township. She believes that veganism is now a choice for everyone, not just the wealthy.

Young entrepreneurs in South Africa have also tapped into the trend and transformed veganism to create food that is meat-free and comforting. Sinenhlanhla Ndlela founded dairy-free ice cream business Yococo, which features traditional South African flavors like rooibos tea and granadilla. Chef Elisha Madzivadondo built a vegan following through hearty and satisfying plant-based burgers using homegrown ingredients.

Madzivadondo’s innovative approach to veganism is organic urban gardening. He grows microgreens and sprouts in a small city garden in Cape Town. Microgreens have a quick harvest time, and therefore do not require pesticides and herbicides.

“Farmers have let us down, the only way to trust is to grow your own,” says Madzivadondo. He believes that mass production farming uses too many chemicals, and he encourages others to start their own backyard gardens.

After selling burgers and juices at food markets, Madzivadondo now owns a popular café in Sea Point called The Sunshine Food Co. The burgers are 80% microgreens and sprouts, and 20% butternut and sweet potato.

Nicola Kagoro says, “South Africa is one of the leading vegan trendsetters in Africa”: Whether it’s burgers, shiro wat, or pap and chakalaka, South Africans are returning to their vegan roots and leading the trend with plant-based comfort food.

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