Why on earth do Africans need ‘to get more excited about plant-based diets’?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

West african food assortment. Image: Getty/Rimma_Bondarenko
West african food assortment. Image: Getty/Rimma_Bondarenko

Related tags Nigeria plant-based diet ProVeg Africa

As ProVeg International, a group wanting to replace animal consumption with alternative protein by 50% by 2040, opens an office in Nigeria – where most people already follow a plant rich diet, and where greenhouse gas emissions are low compared to developed countries – we ask what’s behind the move.

This month saw ProVeg open a hub in Nigeria where it aims to promote ‘healthy and tasty food that is both climate and animal-friendly’.  

ProVeg Nigeria will be heralding its message right across the country – from the Atlantic coastal city of Lagos, with its 25 million inhabitants, to the Sahel region below the Sahara desert – to ‘get more people excited about the many benefits of plant-based diets’, the group announced. The office is headed by Country Director Hakeem Jimo, who also co-founded VeggieVictory, Nigeria's first plant-based food tech company, which was recently ranked in the global FoodTech 500 leading companies.

But most people in Nigeria already follow a plant rich diet, either out of choice or economic necessity. There is also a low level of industrialization, greenhouse gas emissions and general low consumption compared to developed nations. So what gives?

We hear about many problems associated with the food system in Nigeria and West Africa including malnutrition, food security, water scarcity and the need to make crops more resilient. What are the biggest challenges ProVeg has identified in the region, and how can its conviction that the world must shift to plant-based diets meet these challenges?

ProVeg Nigeria’s focus is more on informing people about the importance of balanced, healthy and sustainable diets and the need to avoid consuming unhealthy Western diets that are ‘rich in unsaturated fats, salt and sugar’, explained Jimo.

“This is important because Nigeria is not only the country with the biggest population in Africa, its population is also expected to grow rapidly, from 215 million to 374 million by 2050, along with a growing GDP,”​ he told FoodNavigator. The country is projected to be the third most populated nation in the world after India and China by 2050. As a consequence, meat consumption in Nigeria is expected to grow by more than 300% within this time period, bringing with it ‘the associated health and environmental challenges’, said Jimo. Industrialised meat production systems meanwhile cause widespread pollution of waterways and the deforestation of land for grazing and animal feed. But globally, meat provides just 18% of calories and uses over 80% of land.

The problem of rising childhood malnutrition in Africa

The African continent as a whole, however, has the highest protein deficiency in the world and child malnutrition is increasing. Is this a challenge best addressed by a shift to plant-based diets? The UN recently warned for example that at a global level plant-based foods may not provide sufficient nutrition to achieve public health targets.

It is not an either-or situation, Jimo responded. “Animal protein is currently not, and will not, meet that demand - especially not as the population is doubling. Plant-based protein is more affordable. However, to tackle the protein deficiency we will need a ‘protein mix’ from all sources.”​ 

A well-balanced and varied plant-based diet provide all the nutrients people need wherever they are, and local availability and combinations of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and pulses (and protein-rich products derived from such crops), nuts, seeds, vitamin B12, and a good source of omega-3 are important in all countries. 

“The people who will benefit most from this transition are those in the Global South for whom land pressures from animal agriculture have forced them to leave their land. Our policy work will push for a national strategy that implements a better food system by encouraging food innovation, particularly in the plant-based egg, milk, and protein spaces,”​ Jimo added.  

ProVeg is not telling people in the global South to go vegan, Jimo stressed. “But to shift to plant-rich diets, and prevent the large-scale adoption of meat and dairy-rich Western lifestyles to protect public health and the environment, in West-Africa generally, and Nigeria in particular, where so-called lifestyle diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, are on the rise.”

It is also ‘well documented’, he said, that the consumption of meat and milk is low in low-income areas, which suggests that these animal-based products are too expensive for many people since many people struggle to afford animal-based foods. “It is crucial that we inform citizens about how they can meet their nutritional needs with plant-based sources.”

Agriculture, the environment and food security

ProVeg Africa also wants to stress the links between agriculture, the environment and food security.​ Despite its low emissions compared to the developed world, Africa is a continent ‘most affected’ by climate change: desertification in the Northern Sahel region of Nigeria, coastal erosion at the Atlantic coast. Africans tend to point the finger elsewhere, Jimo said. “However, there are also problems we have caused ourselves. If well-managed, we should not have to deal with food security issues. Nigeria is a very arable country but we have a lot of infrastructural challenges. Farmers struggle to get their produce to the cities where the consumers are. Half of certain crops get wasted and we do not have a significant cold chain that could prevent that.” 

But the elephant in the room is cattle, he claimed. “Meat consumption is increasing but we are still using archaic livestock methods, namely open grazing. Herdsmen from the north cannot find enough grass for their cattle as the desert is advancing. On their way south, deadly clashes with farmers regularly occur, leading to a lot of insecurity.” 

As a consequence, farmers stop farming, which leads to more food security issues. Some people suggest ranching the cattle. However, that will dramatically increase costs of livestock and consumers who are ‘already pushed to the wall’.

Food example, the food supply chains in the continent are currently not set up to maximise the potential of the food system. Poor positioning by African food factories means they are sometimes running at below 50% of their installed capacity due to scarcity of quality raw materials and the capital to purchase them. This further means consumers in Africa are estimated to spend around 60% of their income on food (contrasted with around 10% for European and US consumers).

“Our manufacturing industries are affected by poor infrastructure, mostly the erratic power supply,”​ observed the ProVeg Nigerian head. “The demand for affordable food is undoubtedly there but manufacturers are squeezed with high infrastructure costs like providing electricity with their own generators which comes at a significantly higher cost.” 

When Western industrial farming companies come in, meanwhile, they argue it is in the best interest of consumers because prices remain stable. But this “help” is ill-fated and short lived, lamented Jimo, and comes with costs later ‘to our health, the environment and animal welfare’.

The industrialised systems, he added, also increase the reliance on import of animal feed, which makes the food system ‘less secure, and more volatile’, and he accused the World Bank, IMF and other institutions of investing in ‘intensification of animal farming’. “They should support crop farmers, and processors to increase value-added products for domestic consumption and even stimulate Nigeria to become net exporters of plant-based products, not just raw materials.”

ProVeg Nigeria outside
The ProVeg Nigeria team headed by Hakeem Jimo, right, who also helped launch Nigeria's first plant-based food tech company VeggieVictory

ProVeg Nigeria wants to promote the ‘many opportunities’ to ensure food security with crop farming, particularly with resilient crop types, and the use of precision farming techniques (e.g., minimising water use by applying irrigation in a more targeted way), which ‘vastly reduces land and water use, waste, and decreases greenhouse gas emissions’, Jimo believes, although these techniques are often associated with higher costs and knowledge gaps.

“Other methods include permaculture or agroforestry, where trees are grown not only to absorb CO2 and produce nuts or fruits, but also to provide shade to certain crops that need more protection,”​ he said.  

Crop rotation, minimal mulling to protect the top soil rich in nutrients, planting clover and other nitrogen-fixing plants between (protein) crops to ensure better nutrient uptake via the roots, and minimising damaging pesticides and insecticides all help to lower the environmental impact of agriculture, he added.

“In general plant-based agriculture uses less land and energy while plant-based foods emit only half the amount of greenhouse gas emissions than animal-based foods," ​Jimo argued. "A shift to a more plant-based diet is the most sustainable change we can make to our lives.”

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