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This Chef is Spotlighting Veganism’s Roots in African Cuisine

Chef Nicola Kagoro – also known as just Chef Cola – is preparing to launch a completely plant-based cookbook in an effort to boost plant-based food education. The vegan chef is the head chef for the Zimbabwe Akashinga ranger; An all-women anti-poaching unit that eats completely animal-free foods. Chef Cola makes sure that none of the Akashinga rangers eat meat on her watch, and she is planning to extend that hand of influence beyond her camp kitchen.

Kagoro spent most of her life growing up in New York City but moved back to Zimbabwe where she was born. She began cooking in South Africa when she moved to Cape Town for an internship in a five-star hotel. Once there, she started cooking in a restaurant called Plant, opening the world of veganism and plant-based lifestyles to the young chef.

“It literally fell into my lap,” Kagoro told LIVEKINDLY. “Once I started working for a 100-percent vegan restaurant (I was basically working six to seven days a week) I spent a lot of time eating vegan, plant-based food. So, it ended up being a routine and a lifestyle.”

Once introduced to plant-based eating, Chef Cola could not turn back. Since then, she’s dedicated herself to creating a completely plant-based cuisine, hoping to reach out and educate people about the benefits and potential of plant-based cuisine. Plant-based food education is the driving force for Kagoro’s mission, but she specifically wants to focus on Indigenous African cuisine. Her mission centers around showing communities that plant-based foods can be delicious and nutritious while also connecting people to their ancestors.

Kagoro’s Zimbabwe kitchen, Back to Black Roots, feeds the 171 rangers and members in the Akashinga unit. The primary goal of the kitchen is to keep the rangers nourished, providing nutritional meals for the rangers to retain peak physical performance. Kagoro wants to emphasize that prior to colonization much of the African continent ate primarily plant-based foods.

“Veganism is something that everyone seems to think ‘it’s not African,” Kagoro said. “[People think] ‘we’re introducing it to Africa.’ But it’s actually the other way around.”

The chef also pulls from her own family’s plant-based recipes and diets. She researched her grandmother’s diet and discovered that she ate absolutely no meat. She realized that meat became incorporated into her family’s diet during her mother’s generation, so she decided she wanted to revive her grandmother’s diet and share it with other people. Beyond that, she hopes that people will find the inspiration to search into their family’s diet to find similar plant-based traditions.

“I realized, this woman doesn’t eat meat,” Kagoro said. “She never ate meat. She was strictly on a vegan diet. I looked into my mom’s generation and I realized, no. There’s a difference here – because my mum and uncles, they’re eating meat. And that generation seems to not be reaching that 100-year gap. The difference is diet.”

Once Kagoro learned about her grandmother’s diet, food began to link to identity and tradition in a way that she didn’t see before. Her plant-based cuisine and cooking would be her medium for discussing identity and ancestry. She wanted to emphasize that many traditional African dishes have been completely vegan since their creation.

“Veganism to me now means culture and it means heritage,” she said. “I believe that my ancestors were plant-based and vegan. Through colonial practices, we developed meat-eating practices. We used it for more money, like herding more cows for money basically. [But] veganism was something that my ancestors were a part of. It’s part of my heritage, it’s now part of my culture because I’m getting a connection to [my ancestors].”

Kagoro’s overarching mission is to bring people into a plant-based diet through familiar and traditional foods. She hopes to present an accessible plant-based food education that will encourage people to adopt or at least try the dietary lifestyle. Beyond her work with the Akashinga rangers, her African Vegan on a Budget cookbook is set to hit shelves this November, bringing traditional plant-based African cuisine to the spotlight. She’s also helped in community development by working to establish community gardens in neighborhoods and schools. The gardens mean to serve as a place to source food and teach people what veganism and plant-based mean. Kagoro feels confident that these methods will inspire these communities to rethink their diets and consider a plant-based change.

“A lot of people are cutting down on the meat, and turning to vegan diets or vegetarian diets,” she said. “So I just hope that the future will bring more gardens and more gardening for more people, even those living in the city center.”