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The Future Of Food In Africa: Meat The Alternatives

Published 7 months ago
By Yeshiel Panchia

Traditional ideas of vegans and vegetarians often conjure negative stereotypes, but innovation in the meat alternative industry and growing climate change awareness have joined to create a revolutionary and explosive market, and South Africa can count itself as an early pioneer.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MAJESTIC TABLE Mountain in Cape Town in the confines of the BioCiTi laboratory, scientists of Mzansi Meat are hard at work, making use of stem cells from live,

unharmed animals to grow something novel – meat you can eat.

Over a thousand kilometers north in the leafy, upmarket suburb of Parkhurst in Johannesburg, it is a Monday at Hudsons The Burger Joint – and that means half-price on all vegan meals. Well-dressed socialites – many of whom do not count themselves vegetarian – happily munch down on Beyond Meat burger patties and vegan Moroccan-styled fillets.

Meanwhile in the port city of Durban, hundreds of production workers supervise the process and packaging of thousands of sausages, burger patties and mince in the Fry Family Food Co. factory, mixing soybeans, wheat, rice and quinoa into products destined for over 18 countries.

“Ten years ago I was going to retailers with my veggie burgers and nuggets… and now we are being approached by the meat industry,” says Brett Thompson, who formerly worked for Fry’s, and now is the founder and CEO of Mzansi Meat.

Having studied economics at the University of Stellenbosch in Cape Town with a view to becoming an accountant, Thompson’s journey into the meat alternative world was solidified with his thesis submission for his Bachelor of Commerce degree, titled Making An Economic Case For Vegetarianism.

“I was a young buck and a lot more idealistic,” laughs Thompson on a Zoom call. Drawing heavily
on the work of renowned agricultural economist Professor Jayson Lusk, Thompson and others have produced research that demonstrates an interesting truth that many meat alternative businesses have taken advantage of as a driver to their success; namely, that economics, accessibility and quality are being shown to be an equal, if not greater motivator of the growth of meat alternative products than ethics.

Build it and they will come

The plant-based meat market is estimated to be in excess of $7 billion globally as of this year, and is growing at an extraordinary rate, forecast to reach almost $17 billion as of 2026 (Statista, 2021). South Africa can count itself as an early pioneer in an industry that now counts global brands such as Impossible Foods and listed companies such as Beyond Meat as household names in many countries.

However, in 1991, plant-based meats were in their simmering infancy when a South African named Wally Fry decided that he could no longer ethically consume animals.

Fostered by his wife and daughters’ own vegetarianism, and catalyzed by the conditions he witnessed in a piggery he constructed, the builder and farmer turned his energies toward making plant-based meat alternatives based on soy.

“She just said I won’t kill animals to feed myself,” says Fry of his daughter Tammy. “That was like a seed that was planted in my mind…I couldn’t find anything that tasted, looked and felt like meat, so I decided well “I’ll just invent something’.”

Fry Family Food Co. has grown into an international brand, but it was founded initially on sentiment and the moral choice around the consumption of animals; profitability came later.

It’s not possible to estimate the size of the meat alternative market when Fry first began producing the sausages, patties and nuggets that have led it to become an internationally recognized brand, but with zero data available for that time, it’s safe to say the market was nearly non-existent.

“Our products spoke to local consumers who were fasting for religious reasons,” says Genevieve Cutts, handling Global PR & Communications for LIVEKINDLY Collective, a global plant-based brand which now owns Fry Family Food Co.

“There was a product that offered the taste, texture, protein content and versatility of meat… But the focus was animal ethics and religious or cultural choices.”

The removal of meat from one’s diet and the seeking of meat-alternatives at the time was a primarily ethical or cultural choice, and one not available to much of the world’s population. The alternatives that did exist were not readily available, often expensive, and unable to attract a customer base that did not have a pre-existing moral aversion to consuming meat – with seemingly nowhere to grow from there.

Enter the flexitarian

“There’s a tendency for people to think there’s one factor to solving a problem – be it the pandemic, or climate change, or whatever it is,” says Thompson, “whereas what it is, is 50 years of incremental change… I think when more alternatives are offered into the market, people are made aware of them, and they become price competitive, people will adopt more and more.” And indeed this idea seems to have borne fruit; the catalyst of the meat alternative market – what some in the industry term “Meat 2.0” – has its origins in the targeting of the flexitarian market. Flexitarianism, or semi-vegetarianism, is the inflexible adherence to a primarily vegetarian diet, with the occasional inclusion of meats, and this market is much, much larger than that of ethically motivated vegetarians.

Primarily driven by health concerns, an increase in awareness of the effects of animal husbandry
on climate change, some 42% of global consumers identify themselves as flexitarians, in clear contrast with 4% and 6% for vegans and vegetarians respectively (Euromonitor 2020).

It is this market that is fueling the growth behind the meat alternatives.

Locally, the numbers tell a similarly enlightening story. Joint research by Nielsen and food producer Knorr conducted in 2020 estimated some 100,000 vegans in South Africa. However, vegans were not at all the primary consumers of meat alternative products (Nielsen, Knorr, 2020).

“In the last 10 years this has shifted radically – the idea of plant-based living is a lot more mainstream and the idea of being a flexitarian is widely accepted,” says Cutts.

“We’ve seen data from South African retailers that indicates that 80% of their meat-alternative products are being sold to non-vegans and non-vegetarians,” says Donovan Will, the director of the South African arm of ProVeg International, which works with businesses, governments and the public to promote a transition to a more plant-based society.

“When plant-based is cheaper, and tastes the same [as meat], it’s a game-changer.”

Regular visitors to vegan and vegetarian restaurants reflect this trend. FORBES AFRICA reached out to several customers of The Fussy Vegan in Johannesburg, and the results were surprising, with many of the customers occasionally consuming meat, while working towards a reduced meat diet.

“At the beginning of last year I watched Game Changers on Netflix which talks about the benefits of a plant-based diet,” says Lani Arnold, a 38-year-old accountant and financial manager, to FORBES AFRICA. “I come from a family with a history of diabetes and heart issues, and these can be avoided if you have the correct diet.”

Arnold is amongst millions worldwide actively consuming less meat to promote their health. Crucially, the ease of doing so is driven by the availability of the supply of meat-alternative products that are readily obtainable, relatively cost- effective, and perhaps most importantly, appealing in taste.

“I’m a lazy cook, so I get the veggie patties from Woolworths, Fry’s etc. I get excited when I get a

Beyond Meat patty’s takeaway, because you’re totally confused – it tastes like meat, it’s very well done,” says Arnold.

If it looks like chicken…

“We introduced vegan options in 2017,” says Nicolas Joseph, manager at Hudsons The Burger Joint.. “We found that a lot of people were trying these burgers because of the health aspect. We launched a half- price option on Monday and had a huge climb in sales – people are willing to try a novel experience. The feedback we had is ‘this is phenomenal, it doesn’t taste vegan, it’s so close to meat’.”

Hudsons offers a variety of meat-alternative burgers, with Beyond Meat and Fry Family Food Co. options, as well as vegan chicken strips and pure mushroom patties.

The introduction of Vegan Mondays made it clear that if the quality of the product was good and pricing was competitive, many non-vegetarians were willing to make a change to their diet.

It’s this confluence; the meeting of accessibility, pricing and quality that is fostering the growth of the flexitarian market – and it’s an odd success story for capitalism.

As a 10-year veteran in the advocacy space, Thompson has been making this point for some time – summed up in a talk presented to the Conference on Animal Rights in Europe (CARE) in 2020 titled Unconscious capitalism: How the market offers a shortcut to animal liberation.

“What I found is that telling people to go vegan or vegetarian wasn’t helping,” says Thompson.

“It’s much easier to just get them to eat a nugget that tastes like chicken, and the conversation afterwards is completely different.”

It’s this sentiment that led Thompson, who previously worked at the Fry Family Food Co. and explored multiple avenues of plant-based meat alternatives to examine the other, newer sibling of the plant-based meat-alternative market: cultivated meats.

The first cultured meat patty produced as a proof of concept was demonstrated by Dutch pharmacologist and professor Mark Post in 2013, which was generated through cell cultures similar to the process of stem cell therapies, in a process known as cellular agriculture.

While the single patty is estimated to have cost some €250,000 to produce, it pioneered technology that will someday allow for no-kill meat to be mass produced, and this could be revolutionary for the future of food.

“I think people’s attachment to meat is exceptionally deep, it’s 250,000 years old… I’m not going to say that cultivated meat is the silver bullet and it’s the only answer, but I think it also provides an opportunity for the existing structures within the meat industry… it will form part of the solution,” says Thompson, whose startup Mzansi Meat is aiming to produce cultivated meat for consumption by the end of this year.

The company represents a parallel approach to plant-based meat alternatives as a tandem solution to
the challenges of environmental damage from animal husbandry and food security for the future, and is positioned along with many of its peers globally to take advantage of a similar boom that the plant-based meat- alternative market has seen, having recently secured venture capital funding to continue development and bring their products from the lab out onto the table.

Globally, the cultivated meat industry is in its infancy in comparison to plant-based alternatives, with a current market cap estimated at a mere $100 million – but this
is projected to grow to almost $13 billion by 2030, with dozens of companies such as Silicon Valley’s Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat and many others in development.

With the California-based Eat Just having received approval for the sale of cultivated chicken products in Singapore as of this year, the market looks set to take off as the first cultivated meat products are expected to be on restaurant tables in the near future.

Farming while the world burns

An increase in the awareness of the risk of climate change has been growing, with research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 indicating that the majority of people surveyed in countries around the world view global climate change as a threat to their nation.

With this comes growing knowledge of the impact of animal product consumption, with the exclusion of meat and dairy products being the single-most effective method of reducing an individual’s environmental impact on the planet. With agriculture noted as a significant contributor to global warming, without meat and dairy consumption the entire globe’s agricultural land use could be reduced by 75%. While this is not a realistic goal, it highlights the importance of reduced meat and dairy to protect against climate change – and as more and more people become concerned, this is a growing avenue to promote products.

The meat-alternative market is taking advantage of this awareness, and the messaging has changed accordingly, particularly as these products enter the mainstream.

“We can see what many brands’ marketing strategies are – they used to market just to vegans and vegetarians – why not advertise it to everyone and call it the healthy burger?” says Will.

“Now, when non-vegans try some of the products on the market, they are surprised by the quality, they say ‘this is amazing’ and they can’t believe it’s plant-based and environmentally friendly.”

Indeed, this shift in messaging is reflected in the advertisements of large retailers introducing meat- alternative products.

Burger King, which recently launched plant-based Whoppers, Royale’s and Nuggets in South Africa,

highlighted the health and environmental awareness prominently in press releases and advertisements.

South Africans are listening – recent research conducted by animal advocacy group Credence Institute indicates that as of 2021, over half of the population sampled were willing to try both plant-based and cultivated meat alternatives.

The changes in messaging are a clear reflection of market growth as well.

Fry Family Food Co. partnered with the LIVEKINDLY Collective demonstrating not only the worth of the South African market but the value of South African meat- alternatives to the global market, with Fry’s products now being sold worldwide.

A similar partnership between LIVEKINDLY and one of the largest traditional meat manufacturers, RCL foods – commonly known as Rainbow Chicken Ltd – was approved by the Competition Commission last year, and is a clear indicator that the more normative meat manufacturers are waking up to the potential of the meat-alternative market.

“Over the years, it has been really interesting to watch the market shift according to consumer demand and food trends,” says Tammy Fry, Co-Founder of Fry Family Food Co.

“We are seeing a lot of retailers recognize the importance of plant-based offerings locally and in other markets… if the products are good, well-priced and easily accessible they will continue to make this choice: fundamentally shifting their buying habits.”

As for the scientists in the Cape Town lab, they must continue to innovate and put food on the table.

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