Nicola Kagoro, a.k.a. Chef Cola, is a pioneering Zimbabwean vegan chef and founder of Back to Black Roots and African Vegan on a Budget, which promote healthy and affordable plant-based foods.
One of Chef Cola’s primary goals is to spread awareness of the beauty of plant-based African vegan culture and cuisine by giving people the information and resources they need to actively integrate plant-based eating into their lifestyles.
I recently interviewed Chef Cola to find out how she went vegan, to learn more about her incredible work with the Akashinga women anti-poaching rangers in Zimbabwe, and to find out what inspires her.
TM: How did you go vegan?
CC: I spent my childhood in New York City, where my mother was a diplomat, so my worldview and cuisine were influenced by my time there. But it was while working at PLANT restaurant in Cape Town that I was introduced to veganism and began to train in plant-based cooking.
TM: How did your work with the Akashinga women anti-poaching rangers and Back to Black Roots come about?
CC: Back to Black Roots (BTBR) was created in 2017 as a collaboration between Damien Mander, the founder of the International Anti-Poaching Federation (IAPF), and myself. it provides the 100% plant-based food that fuels the Akashinga women through their training, daily duties, and short- and long-term patrols, as they protect nature and endangered species from poachers. In 2019, BTBR served more than 54,800 vegan meals to 150 Akashinga conservation rangers and support staff, many of these as field rations for consumption while on patrols.
The broader mission of BTBR is to provide nutritious vegan meals to Akashinga rangers and staff, while offering the broader African public the knowledge and skills to lead a plant-based life.
Our BTBR team in Zimbabwe currently consists of 9 woman and 2 men, all Zimbabwean nationals and native Africans. Everyone on the kitchen team came from underprivileged backgrounds and began with no culinary experience. I train them to clean, prep, cook, preserve, and serve plant-based, vegan cuisines in support of IAPF’s conservation mission. The goal is to continue growing and serving alongside IAPF, while expanding BTBR’s educational capacity.
It is significant to note that one of the male chefs used to be a poacher and skinner of animals and is now an aspiring vegan chef helping to protect nature and wildlife. He’s a passionate animal advocate!
TM: Why is spreading veganism important to you and how is it changing people’s lifestyles?
CC: I believe that most people in Africa are living on plant-based vegan diets due to the high costs of living in Africa. In the areas I work in rural Zimbabwe, they are plant-based and vegan mainly, but due to pride of eating animals, they do not say they cannot afford meat or basics like electricity and food. As Africans we are taught that meat is everything so they would rather lie. In rural Zimbabwe they eat a lot of soy chunks and call them ‘’nyama,’’ which means meat. These soy chunks have meaty flavors and textures. I guess it is a psychological thing.
African Vegan on a Budget teaches people how to make affordable and tasty meals on a budget in any area, rural or urban. Spreading vegan culture is very important especially amongst people of color because we cannot literally afford to catch illnesses because the resources that are available for cures are not readily available to us. Plant-based or vegan diet promotion allows the spread of preventive measures and also the spread of positive lifestyles.
TM: What is the vegan scene like in Zimbabwe? What about In Africa, in general, if you have a sense of it?
CC: There is a huge vegan scene in Africa amongst the different countries. Each of our cultures has dishes that are very plant-based or vegan. These dishes are traditional, but still very modern and relevant in our diets today. This is because their ingredients are readily available amongst the different cultures.
In Zimbabwe, the vegan market is still small but growing at a fast pace now. I see more vegan brands coming up and more gatherings that are plant- based, although mainly digital now. I am also based in Cape Town, South Africa and the vegan market there is global and international, with basically everything you would find in a city like Dubai, New York or London.
There still needs to take place processes like unlearning what Africans of color think veganism is. Most people think veganism is a very white thing and expensive, which is why they shy away from it — but it is not.
TM: Traditionally West and Central African foods have been plant-based, but not necessarily plant-exclusive. Do you find that to be the same in traditional Southern African and Zimbabwean food?
CC: Yes, very much so. However not as rich in plant-based foods as countries like Ethiopia and Kenya. Our Zimbabwean dishes are not as plant- based or vegetable-based as those. In Southern Africa, half the plate is meat, the other half is starch, and a spoon of green veg on top of all of that, for example. You have to be health-oriented to watch what you eat, in general.
TM: Who are the vegan leaders and trailblazers in Africa, besides yourself, that you admire?
CC: I would say anyone who is African and pushing the vegan movement, I look up too. We are all in this together because we believe in the same rights and causes. To push it a little further, the vegan movement as people of color goes hand in hand with the Black Lives Matter Movement. The vegan movement is about raising your voice for the voiceless — not just animals, but every one.
TM: What are some of the current projects you’re working on? And what is your ultimate goal?
CC: I am currently working on a YouTube podcast called African Vegan On A Budget with Chef Cola and a vegan cookbook. I have also launched a line of customized African-inspired chef jackets made in Zimbabwe, with a portion of proceeds donated to underprivileged, young African women in Zimbabwe and Cape Town to help improve their sewing skills.
TM: How do you want to change and/or grow veganism in Zimbabwe and Africa, in general? What’s your ultimate goal?
CC: I want to grow it by educating people learning and unlearning the knowledge they have about veganism. My ultimate goal is to work for the United Nations.
To stay connected with Chef Cola, follow her on Instagram and Facebook at @africanveganonabudget.
Much love, fam!
It is very inspiring to read about Chef Cola and get her perspective on the vegan movement in different parts of Africa. Thank you, for all that you are doing to promote health and self worth. I am amazed and proud of both you and the Akashinga Rangers.