Animal products such as beef, fish, poultry and dairy are heavily featured in many traditional African dishes. Some environmental and animal welfare advocates are hoping to change that by introducing plant-based dining to the continent.
Staff at Senegal’s first and only fully vegan restaurant, Casa Teranga, cook up local West African dishes such as mafe and yassa. But instead of the traditional ingredients of beef and chicken, they use chickpeas, black eyed peas, cassava and a colorful array of veggies.
The Dakar eatery is one of 15 in Senegal that participated in the recent Africa Vegan Restaurant Week, the first event of its kind on the continent. To qualify, participating restaurants were required to offer at least one vegan option on their menus.
Supporters of vegan eating say it’s one of the most impactful actions individuals can take to stop abusive animal agriculture practices and to fight climate change.
The phasing out of animal agriculture over the next 15 years would result in a 68 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions through the year 2100, according to a 2022 study.
Research also shows vegan diets can lower blood pressure and cholesterol and reduce rates of heart disease.
Dakar native Bashir Niang owns Casa Teranga with his wife, Elisabetta, a vegan chef. Although the restaurant is extremely popular among expats, he said it’s been difficult to convince his family, friends and other locals of the benefits of veganism.
“In the beginning, they can think that you're crazy," Niang said. "They can’t imagine food without meat, fish or chicken. But I make a vegan version of mafe and they really appreciate it. They are happy; they say it’s really tasty.”
Animal products are ubiquitous in traditional Senegalese cuisine. The national dish, thieboudieune, a rice and fish platter, is often eaten for lunch and dinner.
Many locals see veganism and vegetarianism as a Western import that does not align with their culture.
“Veganism is not African,” said Mour Mbenge, owner of Surf Black and White, a surf rental shop and roadside cafe in Dakar.
Like many Senegalese, Mbengue comes from a long line of fishermen and was raised on fish.
“God created animals to be eaten so we can survive,” he said. “Just like in nature, the big fish eat the small fish.”
Furthermore, as inflation has pushed many items out of reach for Senegal’s low-income population, he says thieboudieune has become the only dish many can afford.
“Without thieboudieune, we’d have a hard time getting by because everything else is too expensive,” Mbengue said. “Even thieboudieune is becoming more expensive.”
Overfishing along the West African coast has depleted fish stocks, causing prices to increase. Studies show that those that are left risk being contaminated with high levels of microplastics and heavy metals.
Anna Touré is the founder of Globisis, a nonprofit that fights climate change, and the Senegal coordinator for Vegan Restaurant Week.
A Franco-Malian, she maintains that veganism is not a Western concept reserved for the rich – rather, there are many vegan protein sources that are local to the region and have been relied on for generations.
“Eating black-eyed peas is much cheaper than eating meat, chicken or fish, which most of the Senegalese people can't afford any longer," Touré said. "We are lucky enough to have everything in Senegal that can fit a plant-based diet.”
Nuts, grains, and vegetables are all grown locally, Touré said, as are healthy specialties such as baobab fruit and moringa.
Nabaasa Innocent is the Africa coordinator for Vegan Restaurant Week and founder of the Uganda Vegan Society. Historically, she says, African cuisines were plant-based and meat was reserved for special occasions.
“But when the word ‘vegan’ comes in they try to Westernize it," Innocent said. "So that’s why we’re bringing it back home to Africa. So, it’s not an import and my appeal to Africans is for us to embrace this practice.”
Across the continent, more than 50 restaurants in at least 20 countries took part in the event.
For a list of the vegan-friendly restaurants, visit www.africaveganrestaurantweek.com or check the hashtag #AfricaVeganRestaurantWeek.