‘Real Nigerian food, but vegan’: Interview with plant-based meat CEO

Veggie Victory's Vchunks is a dehydrated plant-based meat alternative.

VeggieVictory’s Vchunks is a dehydrated plant-based meat alternative.

VeggieVictory was established as a vegan restaurant in Nigeria in 2013. It has since developed into a food product company that has introduced a plant-based meat alternative and is slowly looking to expand its market outside the borders of the country. Jaco Maritz speaks to co-founder and CEO Hakeem Jimo to learn more about the business.

A growing industry and a business created from personal need

In the UK, the government’s official climate advisors recently said that the public should officially be encouraged to eat less meat to help curb greenhouse gas emissions. The UN estimates that about 14% of all harmful emissions come from livestock farming. Whether it is the climate change debate, personal taste preferences, belief systems, or cost considerations, a rising number of people are opting to go meatless. This has resulted in a growing industry producing meat substitutes, estimated to reach US$7.1 billion globally by 2025 and growing more than 7% year-on-year between 2020 and 2025.

In Nigeria, VeggieVictory is one of the first companies to produce plant-based meat on a commercial scale. Its first product, Vchunks, is a dehydrated item, which works well in typical Nigerian dishes where larger cubes of meat are used, like stews. It was developed and manufactured at VeggieVictory’s facility in Lagos, and has now found customers, not just locally, but in other African countries such as Kenya and even further afield.

The company’s roots are in a story of personal need. In 2013, Hakeem Jimo, a German-born Nigerian and dedicated vegan, opened a plant-based restaurant with partner Bola Adeyanju in Lagos. “I wanted to eat real Nigerian food, but vegan, and there were simply no options. I always ended up eating in Lebanese or Indian restaurants,” he remembers.

Jimo and Adeyanju had some money saved and VeggieVictory opened its doors in Freedom Park, a trendy location on Lagos Island.

VeggieVictory co-founder and CEO Hakeem Jimo

Veganising Nigerian cooking

The restaurant built up a loyal and excited customer base from the get-go. After a while, the co-founders felt the need to scale. “Our options were to either open more restaurants, bringing with it the challenges of that business model, or developing a product,” says Jimo.

He realised the plant-based meat alternatives, which could be found in the country with a bit of effort, were not suitable for the Nigerian dishes the local population craved. Some alternatives were available, but these would often substitute the meat ingredients in dishes like hamburgers. “Africa is not really a burger place. We needed something chewier.”

So, in 2015, the idea for Vchunks was born but it wasn’t until 2019 that the product was finally released as it took a while to develop and even longer to certify. “We had created something in an entirely new category,” adds Jimo. He is not divulging the recipe but reveals it is soya and wheat based and that certain machinery is required to achieve the desired texture.

Vchunks is dehydrated, an intentional product characteristic as the founders realised the need for it to be suitable for distribution without any cold-chain requirements.

Developing a new product

According to Jimo, when developing a meat alternative, there are three things to take into consideration: texture, nutrition and taste.

He believes a good alternative should mimic the texture of the meat protein a person wants to use, to make it suitable for staple recipes. “For example, some people would say tofu is a good alternative, but it cannot be used in some of the recipes you find in Africa. We had to figure it out; making something chewy.”

When it comes to taste, Vchunks can be flavoured just like real stewing meat, either by marinating it once hydrated or seasoning it to taste when included in the dish.

“Nutrition-wise it offers even more protein than meat and for me, this was a big consideration. In our market, there is a lot of protein deficiency that must be addressed.”

Price parity – conventional meat is the real competition

Jimo is adamant VeggieVictory’s real competitors are not other plant-based protein manufacturers but meat producers.

“Everybody ready to spend money on conventional meat products is a potential customer for us. This is why it is so important we have reached price parity with the meat options available. We don’t believe it will work if we position Vchunks as a premium product; the market for that is too small.”

“In the current economy, you cannot justify premium pricing with health benefits. People will not consider your product if it is more expensive than meat. It is why price parity has always been at the heart of our product development.”

Expansion and growth – where to next?

Last year, VeggieVictory announced it received pre-seed investments from four European and American venture capital groups: Sustainable Foods Ventures, Capital V, Kale United and Thrive Worldwide. This allows the company some room to start investing in future growth. “For a start-up like us, the money makes a huge difference. You are not always on the edge of not having enough,” he explains.

VeggieVictory has increased its management team, invested in production capacity and used some of the funds for product development.

Finding local investors remains challenging. It is only recently that the company has piqued Nigerian investors’ interest. “Locally, fintech is still the big guy in the room but perhaps it is changing. We do have investors with big money to spend, but plant-based food tech is not a traditional leapfrog choice.”

The company has its sights on the wider African region but Jimo admits they need to take local culinary preferences into consideration.

Vchunks can be found on the shelves of around 60 supermarkets in Nigeria, including large retailers such as Spar. It can also be purchased online in Nigeria and Kenya.

At the moment, some of the ingredients needed in the formula for Vchunks are not readily available in Nigeria. VeggieVictory is working on developing new products to eliminate this hurdle. As the company grows, it will further mechanise its production processes.

It has developed a new plant-based jerky product called Kilishi. The name references the beef jerky from northern Nigeria; a dried version of the skewered meat dish suya.

Local manufacturing

Jimo believes it was the correct decision to manufacture locally in Nigeria. “It would always have been easy to produce in China and India and then ship it here, but considering the reigning logistics challenges and how the economy reacted to the pandemic, it would not have been sustainable.”

He says the advantage of manufacturing abroad in historically cheaper destinations has largely evaporated. “Yes, we have structural problems locally that make production expensive, but the cost of shipping from China, for example – along with the logistics headaches to get it through the Nigerian ports – means it is just not feasible.”

If demand for its products grows outside the borders of Nigeria, the company might consider contract manufacturing, but Jimo believes this is still far off in the future.

VeggieVictory CEO Hakeem Jimo’s contact information

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