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How a vegan restaurant in Senegal is finding its footing in a meat-and fish-loving country


FRESHLY painted on the front of a bright, yellow-and-green building nestled between several restaurants on Pointe des Almadies, the westernmost point of the African continent, is the slogan ‘The Future is Green’,

The sign is large enough to be read from far down the Pointe – which offers stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean – ensuring patrons can easily find their way to Senegal’s first and only fully vegan restaurant, Casa Teranga.

Staff at the restaurant serve customers five to six vegan dishes, daily. These include local specialities like Mafe and Yassa. But instead of the traditional ingredients of beef, chicken or fish, Casa Teranga offers chickpeas, black-eyed peas, cassava and an array of vegetables.

The colourful plates also contain plantain, salad, beetroot, rice, beans, mangos, moringa, and peanuts. Local juices, such as bissap, a Senegalese hibiscus juice, are made with little to no sugar.

“I’m on a mission to show people how delicious a natural and plant-based diet can be,” said Elisabetta Niang, the restaurant’s co-owner.

But in a country where dietary habits centre around red meat, poultry and fish, Niang’s mission was always going to be challenging.

With its long Atlantic coastline, Senegal has one of the largest fishing industries in West Africa ad fish regularly finds its way onto the plates of most of the Senegalese population. Unsurprisingly, fish is the key ingredient in the national dish, Thiéboudienne (comprising fish, rice, tomato sauce and various vegetables).

Casa Teranga offers a different – and according to the owners, more sustainable – take on Senegalese traditions. When the restaurant opened its doors in December 2022. it was a natural progression for owners, Elisabetta Niang, a vegan Italian chef for 25 years, and her husband Bashir Niang, a Dakar native. Formerly the proprietors of one of Berlin’s top vegan restaurants, their move to Dakar was precipitated by COVID-19.

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“I’ve always wanted to bring the concept to my husband’s country of origin. Since COVID-19 and soaring electricity prices made running a restaurant in Berlin difficult, we decided to move to Dakar and realise what we had long planned,” Elisabetta Niang explained.

The couple was surprised by the positive reception their restaurant received, right from the start.

“Unlike when we opened our restaurants in Berlin and Italy, here in Dakar we always had customers from the very beginning,” Niang recounted.

The freshness of the ingredients has been an essential component for the customers.

“Actually, we are not vegetarian, but we love the concept here. It’s healthier and fresher than what most restaurants in Dakar offer and the plates are beautifully arranged consisting of many different components”, said Dieynaba Ndiaye and Berta Gielge, patrons of the restaurant.

But there are plenty of Senegalese who look askance at the new venue’s ambitions – hardly surprising in a country that consumes up to 35 kilograms of fish and meat per person per year (in order of consumption: fish, poultry, beef and mutton).

“I love meat and fish, as I was born in a country where we have a lot of it, and most people eat it. I am not sure why people wouldn’t eat meat or fish. I find it a bit weird to be honest, as I think it is natural to eat it,” admits Cheikh Gueye, who works as a waiter in non-vegan restaurants in Dakar.

Religious and cultural celebrations without a piece of meat or fish are unthinkable and another popular meal is Yassa, which can be either chicken or fish marinated with onions and lemon, simmered and served over rice, and Mafe, a stew typically made with beef or lamb in a peanut sauce.

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However, for Ndiaye, choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet is often influenced by income and education.

“Many Senegalese cannot afford to eat in restaurants like Casa Teranga. And they might not be aware of the benefits of eating more vegetables and fruits. Among younger Senegalese who can afford it or have been living abroad, this is slowly changing, though,” she added.

Anna Touré, the co-founder of GLOBISIS, an organisation trying to fight climate change through a green and plant-based transition in West Africa, points to the large intake of fish and red meat as the result of growing wealth – and the perceived notion that meat or fish with every meal is “normal” in affluent societies.

“Veganism is not a Western concept, many Africans used to be and are still vegan or vegetarian because animal products are too expensive – we need to reconnect to this tradition,” she said.

With her company, she conducts awareness-raising, training, and capacity-building activities for restaurants, schools, universities, private companies, and public institutions in Senegal, Gambia, and Mali.

For Touré, the choice of a vegan diet was not only to reduce animal suffering but also to reduce her carbon footprint.

According to an Oxford University study, going Vegan could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent. This is due to the volumes of food which must be fed to livestock before it goes through the energy-intensive process of being killed, processed, transported and stored. All of these create greenhouse gases.

Touré also went Vegan to feel healthier and more energetic.

“Digesting meat requires a lot of energy and makes the body more prone to cardiovascular diseases; consuming fish exposes the body to microplastics. And contrary to the common belief, it is possible to have a balanced diet without eating animal products,” she said.

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According to her, cowpeas are much cheaper than meat and provide a rich source of proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

“High amounts of vitamins can be found in leaf vegetables, proteins in cashew nuts and whole grain, and calcium in baobab fruits and moringa,” she added.

Touré is the Senegal coordinator for the first Africa Vegan Restaurant Week, which took place from 23 to 29 January 2023. Over 50 restaurants from 20 different countries across the continent took part. While most participating restaurants were based in East and Southern Africa, only Nigeria, Cameroon, and Senegal were represented from West Africa – the latter country with 15 restaurants, of which Casa Teranga was one.

The restaurant’s proprietors saw the event as an opportunity to increase awareness of the potential for vegan restaurants in Africa – and to show that it is possible to run a restaurant with zero waste – and a no-plastics policy.

Niang explained that Casa Teranga pays for the beach in front of the row of restaurants to be cleaned weekly to raise awareness of plastic waste. They also recently started the first eco-friendly takeaway service in the Almadies neighbourhood, with customers receiving food in returnable steel containers,

“For us, it’s not just about business, it is mostly about a vision and creating a positive impact”, she concluded.

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By The African Mirror