Nigeria’s thriving vegan community wants to change your mind about meat

Vegan

In March of 2017 after reading an article about the inhumane treatments cows were given in the slaughterhouse, Tomiwa Isiaka decided to quit eating meat and try out going vegan. Two years before that, she stopped taking milk and other dairy products in a bid to eat clean. By August of 2017, she read another essay while researching on environmental issues and the effects of how humans treat the ocean and fish and decided to quit eating fish altogether. But it has not been easy for her. There are a few restaurants in Lagos that can cater to her specific food needs. And there is the important question of nutrients that she might be missing out on. “I find myself eating a little more food to make up for a lack of the animal proteins,” Tomiwa says.

Thanks to a steady increase in conversations about environmental issues and changes to the earth, a few more people are taking discussions about animals and extinction seriously. Documentaries like Food Inc., Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives have brought forward previously unseen viewpoints on how grazing to feed cattle affects our planet as well as how animals are treated to become food for us. These viewpoints have led to personal decisions and motivations to look for alternatives. To Aisha Modibo; a research officer at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, “Sometimes I feel silly that I made a huge lifestyle change after watching a documentary, but Cowspiracy detailed the damage livestock farming does to the environment and it’s was truly the most convincing pro-vegan arguments I’ve ever heard”.

But the transition to veganism or even to a vegetarian diet is tough. But somewhat worse is staying vegan. For people like Tomiwa, a noticeable absence of restaurants or vegan menus in Nigeria is hard. She doesn’t take mock meat, she doesn’t take tofu. It’s difficult to know what the seasoning for food served in restaurants is made from. Aisha had it slightly better. She transitioned while she was in England. While she missed meat and dairy, there were a lot of vegan-friendly restaurants, so her only hinderance was personal discipline. She doesn’t think she would have been able to transition properly if she was in Nigeria as it’s hard finding tofu and non-diary cheese or pesto. But she remembers her final meal of chicken corn soup to treat her cold. “It may have been the best batch of chicken corn soup I’ve ever made and now, I’m craving [it] all over again.

 

Vegan Dishes for Nigerians

In attempting to transition, Yvonne Iyoha’s first meal was dry toast and baked beans. She was staying at a hotel at that time and those were the only vegan options available at the breakfast buffet. “It was such a bland meal that I couldn’t wait to get back home to prepare my own vegan food”. But when she went online in search of recipes, they were all designed for a Caucasian palate – not spicy enough for the Nigerian in her. So, she created EatRightNaija as a resource for people like herself for people that want to improve their diet, lose weight, get healthier while still enjoying great tasting food. Essentially taking out the bad parts of food we are used to and substituting the animal-based ingredients with plant-based ones. “Because there’s a lot of misinformation about our food, harmful eating patterns are promoted. My hope is that by educating Nigerians on the health benefits of whole-food plant-based diet while showing them that meat-free meals can be delicious and familiar, my website will help people move away from this harmful meat-centric food culture.”

“I honestly feel like a new person – I have more energy and my immune system is in top form. I hardly ever fall sick and going vegan makes you acutely aware of everything you put in your body”. Since going vegan, she has cut down on sugar, oils and processed foods while consuming high amounts of fibre. This allows her to eat a lot while not consuming the calories responsible for weight gain. A meat-based diet generally increases the risk of heart disease and cancer and that risk diminishes with a vegan diet. This is a sentiment that Nkeiruka Enwelum; a nutritionist shares, but not in totality. “There are links, but they are not very strong when linking meat and heart disease or cancer. These things exist because of so many factors. Animal-based proteins are usually fatty, so they increase the risk factor of heart problems. The risk of cancer from meat consumption comes with the uncertainty of the feed of the animal as well as the antibiotics used on the animals, but they are not main cancer and heart problem causing factors.

 

Missing nutrients

Information is key, Nkeiruka says. “Animal proteins are usually complete, while with plant-based food, there’s a need for mixing and matching. Children can’t be fed with beans alone as it doesn’t contain all the proteins needed, so adding corn to it makes it complete.” According to her, vegans usually show signs of deficiency in vitamin B12, Omega 3 fatty acids and calcium. Beyond that, food isn’t only its nutritional value, food is a cultural tool, it’s happiness. Jollof rice has become such a force of nature in Nigeria and it is almost always prepared with meat stock. Moving from a meat base is extremely difficult. It’s inherently Nigerian to be carnivorous with food choices.

In all of Lagos, Plant Planet, Happy Healthy Food and Veggie Victory are the only Vegan/ Vegetarian-friendly restaurants. Casper & Gambini’s has a vegetarian offering on their menu. But for nonbelievers like Israel Afolabi; a filmmaker based in Lagos, the food tastes wrong. “While there’s a need to conserve animals and care for the planet, not eating meat is a No-no for me. The vegetarian soup is not something I will be trying again. It’s almost like food termed ‘vegan food’ isn’t cooked properly. But Ozoz Sokoh; a geologist and chef doesn’t think that vegan dishes taste worse. “The key to deliciousness in cooking is understanding, building and layering flavour and one who understands this can develop flavour regardless of the presence or absence of meat.” She says. Mushrooms and Awara; Soybean curd are vegetables that can be used as meat alternatives. Her only concern is also in eating a balanced diet from the pool of things that are allowed.

But in Bariga market, Mrs. Sarumi, a petty trader selling tomatoes, peppers and onions has never heard of tofu or cauliflower. “Only once last year did someone come to ask for mushrooms. Nobody sells things like that because it’s only meat that Nigerians eat with their food.” she finished. In most of Lagos’ markets, vegan foodstuff are rarely ever available. Except for members of the diminishing middle class and the upper class, the rest of Lagos buys food in markets like Bariga.

 

Community

The vegan community in Lagos is growing especially through the Lagos Veg Fest organized by Veggie Victory; the first all-vegan and vegetarian restaurant in Nigeria. With the fourth edition of the festival held on the 25th of November 2017, vegans and non-vegans in Lagos coming to see healthier vegan alternatives to their everyday menu. In the 3rd festival, Yvonne made vegan fried with plantain moin-moin, mashed sweet potatoes with mushroom gravy and brownies for sale. The reception was fantastic. Yvonne still runs her blog and a few more people are running food blogs and Instagram pages showing their culinary skills. London based Tomi Makanjuola runs The Vegan Nigerian where she shows plant-based cleaner alternatives to regular Nigerian food. While she has not been in Nigeria since transitioning in 2013, she doesn’t think to maintain a vegan lifestyle in Nigeria will be so difficult. Save for tofu, she is mostly covered. Nigerian supermarkets already have the foodstuffs for vegan meals covered.

With the democratization of internet access, Nigerians are more connected to the world and important conversations about the conservation of the planet are already going around. It’s still a distant possibility for the bulk of the Nigerian population to switch to a plant-based diet, but it’s still a possibility nonetheless.

 

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