In the meat-loving capital of Burkina Faso, customers at a small roadside joint eat bean balls, grilled tofu skewers and peanut butter rice while a report about chickens unfit for consumption being dumped on the street airs on the midday news.
A sign above the door proudly welcomes customers: “Vegetarian restaurant Nasa. Food for the love of health.” In Ouagadougou’s first plant-based restaurant, there are no knives on the tables.
The place is full of regular customers who greet Christine Tapsoba, the owner, like an old friend. But it wasn’t always like this. “At the start, it wasn’t easy. People thought it was weird, they didn’t know how we could make food without using meat,” she says. “Some days, we could open the restaurant and sell nothing.”
In the years since Nasa opened in 2004, her clientele has grown exponentially, drawn in initially by giveaways of her popular barbecued tofu skewers.
Plant-based diets have also spread across the west, with vegan restaurants and products seeing meteoric rises in sales. But global meat consumption is still increasing, with burgeoning urban middle classes across Africa, Asia and Latin America powering the demand.
Across Africa, a growing number of plant-based restaurants are following in Tapsoba’s footsteps in response to health and environmental challenges. Happy Cow, an app that helps vegetarians and vegans find places to eat around the world, lists more than 900 restaurants with vegan options across Africa. More than half of these were added in the past two years. Thirty fully vegan restaurants have been listed since the start of 2018.
“Demand has been way up in most major cities. It’s awesome times for those who like to eat plant-based,” says Eric Brent, Happy Cow’s founder. “Some of the catalysts have been vegan documentaries, popular YouTubers [including in South Africa], and plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy,” he adds.
South Africa has been at the forefront of this push, with veganism booming in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Cities such as Nairobi in Kenya, and Accra in Ghana, today boast a dozen meat-free restaurants. In Dakar, the Senegalese capital, upmarket seaside restaurants are quickly adding salad bowls and aubergine sandwiches to their otherwise meat- and fish-filled menus.
The continent is also at the forefront of some of the challenges veganism hopes to ease. Conditions such as heart disease and cancer have now overtaken infectious diseases such as cholera and measles to become the biggest drain on Africa’s economies, according to the World Health Organization. Much of the continent is already feeling the effects of the climate crisis – a common reason for reducing meat intake – as more regular and unpredictable droughts and floods wreak havoc for farmers and regularly claim lives.
Many of its advocates, however, argue that veganism is not a new trend – it is simply a return to traditional African diets. “I particularly think it’s important to spread veganism around Africa because it originated in Africa,” says Nicola Kagoro, a chef working in South Africa and Zimbabwe. “Our ancestors didn’t eat as much meat. It is through colonisation that we learned these crazy meat-eating practices.” Kagoro founded the African Vegan on a Budget movement to show Africans vegan diets can be affordable and filling. She also cooks for female vegan armed rangers group the Akashinga, who fight elephant poaching in Zimbabwe.
In research on the world’s healthiest diets, published in the Lancet in 2015, west African countries such as Mali, Chad, Senegal and Sierra Leone, which boasted diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, topped the list. Ethiopian cuisine relies on plant-based foods such as the sourdough flatbread injera, lentils and beans, and many of the country’s Orthodox Christians take part in regular fasts during which meals are served without any animal products.
Still, the trend is slow to take hold. “It’s hard to spread the vegan practice around Africa because Africans love their meat,” says Kagoro, who is known as Chef Cola. “The challenge is because Africans think meat is a form of showing wealth.”
With Nasa, Tapsoba helps the few Burkinabe vegetarians of Ouagadougou navigate an often difficult path to a meat-free life. “When a vegetarian is here and I am told they struggle to find something to eat, immediately I rise up to help them,” she says.
And with patience, free tofu, and a growing awareness of the consequences of meaty diets, she hopes to convince others to join her.