The vegetable will set you free - embracing vegetarianism and flexitarianism in Africa

It takes a small swimming pool of water to make four of our favourite steaks.

(Photo: Trisala Bid)

(Photo: Trisala Bid)

THE waiter gives him a strange look, not quite understanding why a Ugandan man is asking where the non-meat options on the menu are, especially when he can clearly afford them. 

He hesitates and gives a resigned shrug,“ok we have chicken, or you want fish?” 

The waiter vs vegetarian stand-off is common in restaurants across the continent as the concept of vegetarianism, as a lifestyle choice, is an alien one. 

This is not to say that it’s completely unheard of, most Ethiopians for example belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which prescribes meat-free Wednesdays and Fridays as well as long periods of vegetarian fasting. But on the whole, restricting your diet to just vegetables is strange when meat is so highly valued by communities that they will do their utmost to scrimp and save for it on special occasions. 

Yet, it is exactly this vegetarian practice that could be the future of the African diet, or at least, the direction that it should be going in. This is because of the sheer cost to the continent’s already scare resources needed to support carnivorous diets. 

Livestock and poultry need land, not just to run around and live on, but to produce the huge amounts of cereals and soy needed to feed industrially reared animals - and the continent will not just be relying on imports to support it’s livestock. 

Currently, one-third of the world’s freshwater and one-third of global cropland is used to produce feed for livestock. In the European Union the figure is even higher, with 60% of EU cereals being used to feed animals. If everybody in the world were to consume as much meat as the average European, we would need 80% of the current worldwide arable land just to produce the meat. 

Disappearing land

This is soil and land that Africa is just not able to spare. 

With the desert moving at a rate of up to 5km per year, in West Africa it is estimated that 319 million hectares of land is vulnerable to desertification hazards. Soil erosion is also of great concern and has already reduced Africa’s grain harvest by 8 million tons, or roughly 8%. This is projected to double to 16 million tons by 2020 if it doesn’t slow down. 

On top of all these pressures on resources, the continent is set for a population explosion. At the current rate, almost 2 billion babies will be born in Africa in the next 35 years and Africa’s inhabitants will double from the current 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion by 2050, 25% of the global total. 

As the demand for meat rises, so will the way in which it is produced. 

Because profit margins are tight in the meat business, companies will chase after economies of scale, meaning they will try to produce more with greater efficiency and at a lower financial, but in this case, at a higher resource, cost. 

The biggest water user, and the main cause of the global water crisis, is agriculture. It consumes 70% of the world’s available freshwater. One-third of agriculture’s share goes into raising livestock. This is not because cows, pigs and chickens are especially thirsty, it is because they consume water indirectly, as feed. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it takes 15,500 litres of water to produce just one kilogram of beef, so that would be a small swimming pool full of water for about four steaks. 

The production of fodder will also likely cause over-fertilisation of land which will result in a decline of quality of water, because of the high nitrate content in fertiliser. Intensive livestock production also releases nitrogen compounds, such as ammonia into the atmosphere, contributing markedly to climate change. According to the European Nitrogen Assessment in 2011, this damage amounted to some 70-320 billion dollars in Europe.

These huge climate and resource strains combined with booming population projections, mean Africa will simply not be able to afford to support predominantly carnivorous appetites and the massive factory industries associated with them.

African eating more meat, but not top league

Currently, although Africans are starting to eat more meat, both supply and demand are still not growing as fast as in other parts of the world. The large-scale meat industry is not very common and traditional small-scale production and rearing is widely used. 

In Ethiopia 99% of chicken meat and eggs come from small-scale producers, in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, it was 94% before imports from the European Union took off. The average African eats 20kg of meat per year compared with the global average of 42.9kg. People are still eating at least 80% of the cereal grown on land while livestock are mostly eating what they’re finding on pastureland.

Elsewhere however, the booming economies in Asia, will see around 80% of the growth in the meat sector by 2022 with the biggest growth focused on China and India because of huge demand from their new middle classes. 


This trend will eventually hit the continent as Africa’s middle class is projected to have 1.4million people joining it. Already production has risen in many countries, most significantly in South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco and Ethiopia. On the continent as a whole, the International Livestock Research Institute states that between 2000 - 2030, Africa’s consumption of poultry meat will increase by 200%, beef by over 100%, pork by 150% and milk by about 100%. 

This is not to say that all vegetarianism must break loose - but simply that the continent is in a fortunate position where it can learn from the successes and mistakes of meat production elsewhere. It’s a love-hate relationship where livestock can both contribute valuable nutrients for crops and be responsible for nutrient pollution and land degradation, and both provide critically important protein and micronutrients to human diets and contribute to obesity. 

Eating less meat - rather than omitting it completely is one increasingly choice made by people in the developed world. This diet is now known as a “flexitarian” one, where individuals are choosing sustainable diets which are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable whilst also being nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy. 

A lifestyle choice for example that supports Africa’s more sustainable small-holder farmers for example or production that encourages integrated crop/livestock systems, where animals are fed on crop residues – i.e. the part of the crop that people cannot eat. 

The big question and challenges will come down to two factors. Firstly, the ability of the individual to accept personal actions and ethical decisions which would ask for sacrifices to cultural practices surrounding meat or simply, the love of nyama

And secondly, the capability to develop the necessary infrastructure that would support a more environmentally sustainable industry - in particular the graduates who will have the appropriate skills in the establishment of livestock structures, animal feed processing capabilities, pasture management and conservation, animal health management and meat processing. 

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