We meet Tomi Makanjuola, a vegan chef and blogger who you may know better as The Vegan Nigerian. Here she talks setting up a vegan business, how to give vegan food the wow factor, and why she took part in Upfields A Better Plant-Based Future campaign
When did you first become interested in food and cooking?
I became interested in cooking from a very young age, first from watching my parents cook traditional Nigerian meals from scratch and then becoming obsessed with watching cooking shows on TV.
I made my first dish (jollof rice) at the age of ten and would spend a lot of time experimenting with recipes that I picked up from my favourite TV chef or from one of the numerous cookbooks we had at home.
What was the trigger for you going vegan?
I was initially drawn to veganism for health reasons. At the age of 20, I found that my energy levels were at an all-time low and so I wanted to see if eliminating certain foods from my diet would make a difference.
After a week of cutting out all animal products, I felt lighter and more energised, and the seed was planted in my mind that I could continue eating this way.
At the same time that I was experiencing this, I was also beginning to question the treatment of animals in general. I was living with a family during my year abroad in France and they had a pet dog. His presence stirred up questions such as: ‘Why do we treat some animals with affection and yet exploit others?’
I could no longer justify the double-standard.
After carrying out a bit more research into the vegan lifestyle (through reading books and watching documentaries mostly), I was fully convinced that I was on the right path and the switch from meat-eater to fully vegan happened virtually overnight.
Although the change seemed a bit daunting at first, my convictions were so strong that this soon gave way to excitement and a feeling of true liberation. It’s been 7 years now I can’t imagine ever going back.
Tomi Makanjuola presenting her documentary for A Better Plant-Based Future. © Upfield
When and why did you decide to set up The Vegan Nigerian?
The Vegan Nigerian started as a small blog in February 2013. I set it up simply to share recipes and insights into the new vegan lifestyle I had adopted. I wanted family and friends to see what was possible and in many ways convince them that they didn’t have to give up on our cultural heritage by choosing to go plant-based.
Over time, my work with The Vegan Nigerian evolved to include hosting dining events (such as pop-up restaurants and supper clubs), appearing at food festivals, catering and publishing cookbooks.
What would you say to anyone who tried to tell you that vegan food was bland?
I would say that they need to expand their horizons a bit more because there is a plethora of amazing, tasty vegan food to be discovered.
When cooking vegan meals at home, it’s all about getting the spicing, seasoning and textures right. Pungent ingredients like garlic, ginger and chilli will immediately elevate most savoury dishes.
If it’s a rich, meaty texture you’re after, then try adding ingredients like marinated/roasted mushrooms or smoked tofu.
And when you’re dining out, you’ll find that most restaurants are making more of an effort to cater to vegans.
Beyond simple side salads, you’ll now find wholesome, comforting dishes. Explore a range of cuisines with plant-based options – such as Nigerian, Ethiopian, Thai, Mexican and Caribbean, to name a few – where bold flavours are the order of the day. Nothing says you have to give up on taste.
What was the hardest lesson you had to learn about owning your own business?
The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn since starting my business is that I cannot do it all on my own.
As someone who is fiercely independent and self-motivated, there have been times where I’ve found it difficult to let go of the reins or bring people on board who could have made certain aspects of the business run smoother.
I strongly believe that every entrepreneur should understand and be able to perform at every level of their business, be it marketing or operations or admin, etc, but with growth comes the need to start looking at building a team. This is an area I’m very much still working on.
How has Covid-19 changed the way you run your business?
Since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, I’ve had to suspend all face-to-face activities, cancel workshops and catering jobs.
It forced me to focus more on my online offering and find other ways to stay connected with my audience/clients. From hosting online cooking classes to building brand partnerships to promoting my cookbook in fresh ways, it’s been an enjoyable process of adapting.
I consider myself to be pretty optimistic and solution-driven about most things in life, and so I choose to tap into the possibilities that exist during this difficult period we’re all passing through.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in setting up a cookery school or teaching lessons?
It helps to start building a following around what you’re offering. Be clear about your niche.
Social media is a great way to showcase your portfolio and attract your ideal clients. They are the ones who you’ll market to when you first start teaching lessons, and word-of-mouth can be very powerful.
On the practical side, research public kitchen spaces in your town/city, figure out the cost of hire, the documents you’ll need to present (such as food & hygiene certificate; public liability insurance etc).
Once you’ve figured out the logistics, the fun part begins: decide which recipes you want to teach, design your lesson plan and market your class online and offline.
Why did you decide to be part of Upfield’s A Better Plant-Based Future campaign?
The Better Plant-Based Future advocacy platform showcases the real stories of people who are contributing to the plant-based movement in one way or another. I decided to take part in Upfield’s campaign and be part of their mini documentaries (which you can watch on the Better Plant-Based Future website), because the message truly resonated with me.
Adopting a plant-based lifestyle really can do wonders for our personal health and the planet, and it is possible to start taking simple steps towards that from today.
Whether it’s replacing your dairy milk with a plant-based alternative or having meat-free days that eventually lead to going vegan, it’s so important to spread the message that everyone can start making changes now for the benefit of our collective future.
I think of family members and friends who are not fully vegan but who are adapting a little every day; rather than look down or criticise their progress, I’m encouraged to see them put the pieces together.
What steps would you suggest to a non-vegan to help us work towards a plant-based future?
I would say to research veganism in order to internalise the various benefits to our health, the animals and the planet.
Then if you choose to embrace the lifestyle, do so at a pace that works for you. Start by trying new vegan products, experimenting with plant-based recipes and seeing what replacements you can introduce, such as plant-based milks, spreads, cheeses and meat alternatives.
Veganism has come a long way over the last few years and you’ll be spoilt for choice in terms of all the wonderful food that’s now available!
Read about why Upfield launched its A Better Plant-Based Future campaign here
About Tomi Makanjuola
Tomi is an award-winning blogger and chef. She runs The Vegan Nigerian, a platform dedicated to making Nigerian cuisine and the vegan lifestyle accessible to members of her community and beyond. The Vegan Nigerian began as a blog in 2013 and has since evolved to pop-up restaurants, workshops and catering services. Tomi is the author of Plantain Cookbook. You can follow her journey on www.vegannigerian.com or via Instagram @vegan Nigerian. Watch Tomi’s mini-docu for A Better Plant-Based Future here