It’s been a surprisingly eventful year for purveyors of plant-based meat alternatives.
For years, these products were innocently stored in supermarket freezers, often ignored by carnivores until they have to face the situation of hosting a vegan at a braai.
That all changed when the agriculture department decided to crack down on plant-based meat alternatives with regulations that could see them confiscated from supermarket shelves.
If that had happened, it would have been the end for Herbi Vohr, a small Johannesburg-based company that has been producing these alternatives for six years.
Instead, the word had the effect of drawing more attention to the industry, says Anneke Malan, co-owner of the company.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the dispute — which has been put on hold until at least mid-May, when the injunction sought against the department expires — Malan and Herbi Vohr executive director Daniel Malan , they have hope. This is when 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.
The couple sit in their lush garden in Joburg, which has recently been hit by a summer hailstorm. The neighbor’s cat, Raku, has positioned himself in front of Daniel, who speaks over the soft coos of his rescued chickens, Daisy, Rosie and Poppy.
“The point is that if you look at it from a human point of view, it took us a long time to get to where we are now. But if you look at it in a global sense, it’s like an instant. It has taken so many thousands of years just to get to where we are. And all of this is happening in a very short time,” says Daniel, reflecting on the state of the plant industry today.
Anneke describes Daniel, the mastermind behind Herbi Vohr’s range of products, which includes vegan steaks, bacon and pastrami, as a cross between an artist and an alchemist.
For Daniel, it was important that the products look and feel as close as possible to the original.
“Many people who are not vegan or vegetarian wonder why we would want to eat things that look and taste like meat. But we haven’t stopped eating meat because we don’t like the taste. It is 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 do is important to show people that they don’t have to eat animals to have something like that they” you are used to.”
Anneke adds: “Some vegans are scared of our products. But most people appreciate the fact 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 actually backfires. So instead of trying to exclude people who aren’t vegan, we should be actively including them and making it easier for them.”
This more pragmatic attitude towards the market is also the basis of 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.
“In South Africa, we eat a lot of meat,” says John Uys, On The Green Side’s managing director of sales and distribution.
“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 enter our category. That will drive growth.”
Uys says On The Green Side aims to make a plant-based diet more accessible to people who want something different that they can adapt to recipes that usually use meat. Unlike the tried and tested versions of plant-based chicken (usually breaded nuggets or burgers), On The Green Side makes steaks that are closer to the unprocessed protein.
“We want the adoption to happen on a larger scale. People try plant-based, because it’s a novelty. But they don’t come back for different reasons”, explains Uys.
“With our products, because it’s a whole-cut, clean-label product… you can connect it to any food. You can make a Thai chicken curry, a Malaysian satay, a Korean barbecue or just a South African braai. But you can’t do everything with nuggets.”
This characteristic of On The Green Side’s plant-based chicken has made it an attractive option for restaurants, which have shown a growing appetite for plant-based menu alternatives.
Vida e Caffè has recently launched a vegan range using plant-based chicken from On The Green Side. In doing so, the coffee franchise has followed in the footsteps of other well-known restaurant brands, including Burger King and Nandos, who recently revamped their plant-based offering by launching their ‘Great Pretender’ menu items.
Competition among restaurants, as well as major retailers such as Checkers and Woolworths, has fueled the category’s growth, says Uys.
“This is driving sales [and] It seems that South Africans are very open to at least trying plant-based. So there is definitely movement. I have to say I’m surprised by the adoption.”
Earlier this year, Deloitte released a report that suggested the market for plant-based meat products in the United States was more limited than many previously thought. The American population open to repeat purchases of plant-based alternatives may have reached a saturation point.
According to Deloitte, the number of consumers who sometimes buy these products for themselves or for their households did not grow in 2022.
Deloitte’s research coincides with recent reports that Beyond Meat’s growth has stalled. Launched in the US a decade ago, 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.
But whether South Africa’s plant-based market is growing or slowing is more difficult to determine. There is almost no data to show how much the country’s vegetable market has grown over the years, notes Donovan Will, director of ProVeg South Africa.
ProVeg advocates for the transition to plant-based lifestyles and economies, working with the public and private sectors.
Research by global consultancy Nielsen showed that in 2017 only 0.1% of South Africans were vegan, 2% were vegetarian and 14% were flexitarian. Without data from previous years, or the following years, this still does not tell the whole story.
“But then the next thing to look at would be the new products, the longevity of the products that came out a while ago and are still here,” Will notes.
“For example, Beyond Meat has been here for just over four years and they sell two burgers for R120. The fact that they’re still here and still selling products shows there’s demand.”
Greater variety at retailers and more choices at restaurants are also indicators of demand. Pick n Pay offers at least five brands that make plant-based meat alternatives. So do the ladies. Woolworths has its own extensive line of plant-based food products.
“It’s definitely growing, but there’s very little evidence that it’s growing because of vegans and vegetarians, because of the small group they represent,” says Will. “When the growth rate starts so small, it doesn’t account for all these products at Woolworths.”
Demand for these products is clearly driven by people who want healthier and more sustainable food, adds Will. This gives brands like Herbi Vohr and On the Green Side access to a much larger market, while making the transition to a plant-based lifestyle easier for the unconverted.
“If you ask the average South African, ‘Are you concerned about the environment?’ Are you worried about your health? Do you care about animals?’ Everyone says yes, “Note Will.
“There are very few people who will say, ‘I don’t care at all about my health.’ I don’t care about the environment at all. I don’t care about animals at all. But would you be willing to go vegetarian for all that? No… So, offering products that taste exactly the same [as meat], you don’t need to convince anyone of the health benefits, the environmental benefits, or any benefits at all. You just say there is a better product here. “