“It is not unusual to hear Nigerians say that a meal is not complete without the meat,” says Tomi Makanjuola. This makes Tomi – in her own words, ‘an unusual Nigerian’ – she is vegan and hasn’t had any meat or fish for over three and a half years. “You will likely have to face one or two strange stares and questioning glances at social events and gatherings once people find out that you are vegan.” But that has done nothing to stem her enthusiasm for this way of life despite being the sole member of her family to have turned away from animal products.
Tomi became vegan during her penultimate year at Oxford University. Prior to that, having grown up in a Nigerian household, she ate everything and anything. In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, meat makes up a large part of most meals and is considered a sign of wealth. As a youngster Tomi never could have imagined choosing a vegan lifestyle. In fact at the time she considered it strange.
Even today, there are very few Nigerian vegans and Tomi knows them all, and is even in touch with those who question her lifestyle change. “Through interactions on my blog and social media platforms, I have observed that many are genuinely fascinated by the concept, if a little baffled and adamant that they could never adopt the lifestyle for themselves.” she says. At the moment, she is still the only vegan in not just her immediate, but her whole extended family.
So how did Tomi come to be that rare and quirky thing – a Nigerian vegetarian? “I initially gave up meat for health reasons,” Tomi explains. “Instinctively, I wanted to see if I could improve my energy levels as I was feeling sluggish all the time and overall health wasn’t brilliant.” This was while she was a student and may have been part of a youthful rebellion against the established order.
By giving up meat she noticed a significant difference almost immediately. “My skin cleared up and I lost a little excess weight.” It was also around that time that she began to make a connection in terms of animal cruelty (particularly factory farming practices) and the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. “Something clicked for me,” she says. “Now I couldn’t imagine going back.”
Tomi became not just a vegan but also something of an African pioneering activist. “When I started my blog, The Vegan Nigerian, it was an attempt to prove that flavourful Nigerian meals could still be prepared and enjoyed even while following the vegan lifestyle,” she confirms. Nigerian cuisine is naturally rich in plant foods – from rice to yam to sweet potatoes, plantain, cassava, beans, and many more wonderful vegetable. Lots of popular Nigerian dishes like yam pottage, ewa goyin and jollof rice can easily become vegan dishes.
According to Tomi, all that is required to make most traditional Nigerian meals vegan, is simply to eliminate the side serving of meat or eggs. “In my opinion, Nigerian vegan food deserves recognition because of the complex flavour profiles and interesting cooking techniques involved, all of which dispel the common myth that vegan food is boring or bland,” she says.
Veganism has entered Tomi’s life in other ways than eliminating meat and dairy from her diet. “I started selling vegan treats and cakes to the public at local markets and festivals in 2014 after graduating from university,” she says, A year or so after moving to London, she started her pop-up restaurant project. The initial pop up in April 2016 has led Tomi to feel confident enough to experiment.
“It was the right time to branch out and introduce people to the type of food that I am so passionate about. My hope is that more and more people in the Nigerian community see how easy it is to incorporate healthier, plant-based meals into their diet,” she says. Tomi predicts that more Africans will attend her soirees in the future. “The responses from the pop-ups have been encouraging so far.”
On a quiet Monday night I went to eat at Tomi’s pop up in a west London venue. An eclectic crowd of 20 turned up to enjoy a four course meal that was at once familiar in taste and yet a little bit different. A small glass of a pink liquid had a hard to analyse delicious taste. In fact it was a blend of pomegranate juice, fresh lime juice and a dash of sugar for sweetness.
The starter particularly caught my attention with its contrasting sweet and savoury flavours. Tomi had stuffed cabbage rolls with sweet potato and mixed vegetables. The filling had white-fleshed sweet potatoes and carrots cooked two ways – oven roasted and mashed – broad beans and fresh parsley, curry powder, dried thyme, salt and pepper. The sauce was made using a blend of red bell pepper, vine tomatoes, red onions, chopped peanuts and peanut paste. All the complex flavours were balanced by a simple salad.
Tomi always gives thanks to her family. Her parents in particular have been active in her vegan business. “My father, with his background in business consultancy, has given me countless tips and advice, and helped me to think through and start to develop a comprehensive business plan, “she explains.”My mother, who was very enterprising during the years she raised us (she once ran her own catering business in Lagos, Nigeria), regularly helps me out on an operational level.”
She helped Tomi with the food prep for the pop up at the South Bank’s major African event, Africa Utopia. Although boosted by her parents’ unfailing support, vegan cooking is not a full-time enterprise for them – or for Tomi yet. “I have a part-time job as a chef at a company called The Detox Kitchen while trying to build my business on the side. My goal is to be a full-time entrepreneur, and be able to sustain myself through that,” Tomi explains. “I am a big believer in turning gifts and passions into a way of making a living.”
One of Tomi’s long term goals is to develop a product line – a range of Nigerian-inspired snacks such as plantain chips, cakes and fritters – that would be made available in supermarkets. She also wants to get into food publishing and create cookbooks based on her recipes and Nigerian vegan cuisine in general.
At the Monday night event diners were a balanced mix of Nigerians and non-Nigerians. “My pop-up brand seems to be doing the job of attracting audiences from both the largely Caucasian and Asian vegan community and the Nigerian (and other African countries) vegan and non-vegan community.
While building a business is upmost in her mind, the health benefits of being a vegan are undeniable, Tomi is eager to emphasise the knock-on effect. “My energy has improved so that I am now more motivated to exercise, and this has been great for my general sense of well-being and mental clarity. I’ve noticed that I only get colds once or twice a year, and my recovery time is a lot quicker,” she notes.
If you eat out, it is far easier to be vegan here in the UK than in Nigeria, at least from the perspective of dining out .There are new vegan restaurants opening all the time, while there is only one vegan restaurant in the whole of Nigeria – in the capital Lagos. It’s called Veggie Victory. But most Nigerians eat at home and despite high blood pressure caused by cholesterol being a major health risk among well-heeled Africans, encouragement is needed to help them break the meat habit.
And Tomi’s final words? “Nigeria is blessed in terms of the fresh and organic plant foods, all of which can be whipped up into delicious vegan meals. But the desire and motivation has to be there. Another reason why it may be easier here is that, from a cultural perspective, people are increasingly more accepting of the vegan lifestyle in the UK, while Nigeria still has a long way to go on that front.”
Tomi’s website is vegannigerian.com.