How Tomi Makanjuola is changing vegan stereotypes

While lockdowns have led to a surge in people adopting plant-based diets, stereotypes surrounding the “typical” plant-based chef remain rooted in white, hipster imagery and are reified by the inherently white image of the food media industry. But Nigerian-born, London-raised chef Tomi Makanjuola is carving out her own space.

Makanjuola, founder of food website The Vegan Bulgarian and author of The Plantain Cookbook , uses food as a tool for education and identity reshaping, working to actively break down perceptions of plants. A look at the sex industry while offering a unique take on the typical Nigerian. Dishes.

I spoke with Makanjuola about a new project she’s involved in, the mini-documentary series A Better Plant-Based Future , and why it’s crucial to make Nigeria’s vegan cuisine accessible to the masses.

Timi Sotire: What made you want to adopt a plant-based diet?

Tomi Makanjuloa: Before becoming vegetarian, I was eating a typical Nigerian carnivorous diet. But when I turned 20, I realized that my diet was affecting how I felt. I decided to give up animal products for a while and noticed a complete difference. Along the way, I started to really understand animal rights and ethics. So, those two things turned me into a vegetarian overnight. I can't imagine myself stopping. It’s been over seven years now and I haven’t looked back!

TS: What are you doing to encourage people to adopt plant-based habits?

TM: I recently participated in the Upfield mini-documentary series A Better Plant-Based Future to show people they can find the tools to develop a plant-based diet. A lot of the concerns people raise about plant-based foods is that they don’t know where to start. It's also meant to highlight people like me who you wouldn't expect to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. I tell people that you can use your cultural heritage while working to protect your health and the planet; these things can be done together. I am a vegetarian but I am still Nigerian. I'm just happier, healthier, and more prosperous.

TS: How has the broader black community responded to your plant-based diet?

TM: In the beginning, some people were excited to see Nigeria participating in the vegetarian movement, or wanted to see healthier Nigerian foods incorporated into their diets. But sometimes I get messages from Nigerians who say it’s unbiblical, or that the idea of ​​“Nigerian Vegan” is an oxymoron. Now I feel like they are more accepting of it because veganism is becoming mainstream.

TS: It’s interesting that people think being a vegetarian Nigerian is an oxymoron. Where do you think this comes from?

TM: This is a product of modern times. When I researched the history of food in Nigeria, a plant-based diet was not new. We have an abundance of plants and vegetables that we incorporate into our food every day. In some communities in Nigeria, meat is not a necessity in their diet. With the dominance of colonization, modernization and Western values, coupled with the idea of ​​meat as a status symbol, meat has permeated our culture. This is why many Nigerians believe that “a meal is incomplete without meat”. But when you challenge them and ask them where their ideas come from, they have little real basis.


TS: Why do you think the public still views a plant-based lifestyle as a “white” lifestyle?

TM: Oh, simple: it's because of the way it's packaged. The voices that get the most attention are those of white vegans. There's also a typical look: When you think of a vegetarian, you picture a skinny blonde doing yoga. They even incorporate foods from the African continent that chefs like me have been incorporating into our diets our entire lives. You can't help but feel frustrated. But I try not to focus on that. I think if I keep doing what I do, people who care about supporting people who are genuine will find me.

TS: What do you think the food industry should do to challenge people’s perceptions of plant-based diets?

TM: Just introduce us a little bit more. Try to diversify the voices you amplify rather than perpetuating stereotypes. Stop trying to homogenize us by talking about “vegetarian African cuisine”. Africa is such a big continent, which part of it are you referring to? Or, I've seen white influencers' take on Nigerian cuisine, where their recipes would take center stage in the media, but they didn't even have a connection to the recipe or understand its history. Featuring people making the food of their own culture is crucial. I think this is a simple step.

The Plaintain Cookbook is available in paperback here or in PDF here. You can watch Makanjuola’s episode of Better Plant Futures here .