There is a place for the herbivore at the braai

It’s been a surprisingly busy year for plant-based meat alternatives.

For years these produce were innocently stored in supermarket freezers and often ignored by meat eaters until they faced the predicament of hosting a vegan at a braai.

That changed when the Department of Agriculture decided to curb plant-based meat alternatives with regulations that could see them being confiscated from supermarket shelves.

If that had happened, it would have been the end of Herbi Vohr, a small Johannesburg-based company that has been making these alternatives for six years.

Instead, the palaver brought more attention to the industry, says Anneke Malan, co-owner of the company.

Rather than feeling crushed by the dispute, which has been on hold until at least mid-May, when the interdict sought against the department expires, Daniel Malan, Malan’s chief executive, and Herbi Vohr are hopeful. This is because the plant-based lifestyle has become more mainstream, with more options in supermarkets and restaurants for vegans and others who just want to cut back on meat.

Daniel Malan, Managing Director of Herbi Vohr and Amenna Malan, Co-Owner of Herbi Vohr

“Angry Vegans”

The two sit in their lush Joburg garden, which was recently hit by a summer hailstorm. The neighbor’s cat, Raku, has positioned himself in front of Daniel, who is speaking over the soft cooing of their rescued chickens, Daisy, Rosie, and Poppy.

“The point is, if you look at it from a human perspective, it has taken us a long time to get where we are now. But when you look at it globally, it’s like an instant. It has taken so long and so many thousands of years just to get to where we are now. And it all happens in a very short time,” says Daniel, looking back at the current state of the plant-based industry.

Anneke describes Daniel – the mastermind behind Herbi Vohr’s product range, which includes vegan steaks, bacon and pastrami – as a mixture of artist and alchemist.

It was important to Daniel that the products look and taste as true to the original as possible.

“A lot of people who aren’t vegans or vegetarians ask why we want to eat things that look and taste like meat. But we didn’t stop eating meat because we didn’t like it. For ethical reasons,” he says.

“And we still like to eat things that we’re familiar with … Also, we originally did this for vegans, but I think what we’re doing is important to show people that they don’t have to eat animals to do something.” To have something similar to what they are used to.”

Anneke adds: “Some vegans have actually freaked out about our products. But most people appreciate that we give them a replacement that reminds them of the original.”

The first stage of veganism, Anneke explains, often requires being quite radical. “We were angry vegans. Then, after a while, you become pragmatic and realize that being an angry vegan is counterproductive. Instead of trying to exclude non-vegans, we should actively include them and make it easier for them.”

This more pragmatic approach to the market also underlies On The Green Side’s business strategy. Founded in 2018, the small start-up makes a plant-based alternative that mimics the texture, taste and mouthfeel of chicken.

adjustment

“We eat a lot of meat in South Africa,” says John Uys, General Manager of Sales and Distribution at The Green Side.

“That’s why the products you make in this category, plant-based meats, have to appeal to flexitarians. We need people who eat meat to open up our category. That will drive growth.”

According to Uys, On The Green Side aims to make a plant-based diet more accessible to people who want something different that they can convert into recipes that typically use meat. Unlike the tried-and-true, plant-based versions of chicken (usually breaded nuggets or burgers), On The Green Side makes fillets that are closer to the unprocessed protein.

“We want adoption to happen on a larger scale. People are trying plant-based because it’s a novelty. But they don’t go back to it for various reasons,” explains Uys.

“With our products, because it’s a clean label, whole product, you can put it in every meal. You can cook up a Thai chicken curry, a Malaysian satay, a Korean barbecue or just a South African braai. But you can’t do that with nuggets.”

This characteristic of On The Green Side’s plant-based chicken has made it an attractive option for restaurants that have shown a growing appetite for plant-based menu alternatives.

Vida e Caffè recently launched a vegan range featuring On The Green Side’s plant-based chicken. In doing so, the coffee franchise has followed in the footsteps of a number of other well-known restaurant brands, including Burger King and Nandos, which recently revamped their plant-based offerings with the launch of their “Great Pretender” menu items.

Competition between restaurants, as well as big retailers like Checkers and Woolworths, has fueled growth in this category, says Uys.

“That drives sales [and] It seems that South Africans are very open to at least trying plant-based. So movement is definitely there. I have to say I am surprised by the acceptance.”

Earlier this year, Deloitte released a report suggesting that the market for plant-based meat products in the United States is more limited than many previously thought. The US population, open to repeat purchases of plant-based alternatives, may already have reached a saturation point.

According to Deloitte, the number of consumers who buy these products partly for themselves or their household has not increased in 2022.

Deloitte’s research aligns with recent reports that Beyond Meat’s growth has stalled. Founded a decade ago in the United States, Beyond Meat was one of the first companies to offer plant-based alternatives that closely mimicked the look, taste, and mouthfeel of meat. The brand’s range is sold in South Africa at a high price.

However, it is more difficult to determine whether the vegetable market in South Africa is growing or slowing down. There’s almost no data showing how much the country’s plant-based market has grown over the years, notes Donovan Will, the director of ProVeg South Africa.

ProVeg champions the transition to plant-based lifestyles and economies, working with the public and private sectors.

sustainability

Research by global consultancy Nielsen showed that in 2017 just 0.1% of South Africans were vegan, 2% vegetarian and 14% flexitarian. Without data from previous years or beyond, this still doesn’t tell the whole story.

“But next would have to be looking at new products, the longevity of products that arrived a while ago and are still around,” notes Will.

“Beyond Meat, for example, has been here for a little over four years and sells two burgers for R120. The fact that they are still here and still selling product shows that there is a demand.”

Greater variety in retail and more choices in gastronomy are also indicators of demand. Pick n Pay offers at least five brands that make plant-based meat alternatives. Checkers do that. Woolworths has its own extensive range of plant-based foods.

“It’s definitely growing, but there’s very little evidence that it’s growing because of vegans and vegetarians because they’re such a small group,” says Will. “If the growth rate starts out that small, that doesn’t explain all of these products at Woolworths.”

Demand for these products is clearly being driven by people wanting healthier, more sustainable foods, Will adds. This gives brands like Herbi Vohr and On the Green Side access to a far larger market, while also facilitating the transition to a plant-based lifestyle for the unconverted.

“If you ask the average South African, ‘Do you care about the environment? Is your health important to you? Are you interested in animals?’ Everyone says yes,” notes Will.

“There are very few people who say, ‘I don’t care about my health. I don’t care about the environment at all. I’m not interested in animals at all.’ But would you be willing to go vegetarian for it? No… By offering products that taste exactly the same [as meat], you don’t have to convince anyone of the health benefits, the environmental benefits, or any benefits. They just say here is a better product.”

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