Nicola Kagora—aka Chef Cola—is on a mission. Firstly, to see her fellow Zimbabweans embrace veganism as a lifestyle choice. Then to share her “African roots” vegan brand with the world. This being especially relevant given that she believes the plant-based vegan diet originated in Africa.
Kagora, 30, who lived in New York City from age three to twelve with her then-diplomat mom and siblings, is based between Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare and “the middle of nowhere” which is no exaggeration.
The curious second location makes sense when you learn that Kagora is executive chef, appointed to manage a bush kitchen and “feed” the Akashinga (“the brave ones”), Africa’s first armed all-women anti-poaching unit.
To restore to wilderness, a 115-square-mile former trophy hunting tract in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley ecosystem. And to not only protect the remaining animals—the region has lost thousands of elephants to poaching—but also to facilitate the financial upliftment (through tourism and in other ways) of impoverished communities that intersect with this vast wildlife tract.
Kagora was brought on board by Damien Mander, a former special-ops sniper from the Australian Defense Force. Mander subsequently spent three years in Iraq preparing paramilitary forces for the frontlines. It was after this, disillusioned and traveling in Africa, that he encountered criminal networks threatening the survival of rhinos and elephants.
In response, he set up the International Anti-Poaching Foundation and recruited “desperate,” “abused” and “defeated” women from local communities eager to turn their lives around. Thus, these super-charged, now-empowered women, who operate deep in the Zimbabwean bush, were hand-picked from the communities they now serve.
Mander, the hunky tattooed military man turned conservationist, is a committed vegan.
He and the squad follow a vegan diet to support sustainable food choices and avoid “animal cruelty and the hypocrisy of saving one animal only to eat another.”
SOS From the Bush
“Yes, the kitchen is in the bush—literally is the middle of nowhere,” Kagora laughs when we connect to talk, by WhatsApp, after many messages and attempts at contact.
Shortly before our scheduled interview, I had received an SOS message. “An emergency has come up in the kitchen.” Can we delay our call?
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By that evening Kagora has traveled from the bush kitchen back to Harare. The emergency was an announced three-day shut-down in Zimbabwe—which meant she had to get out and go home.
I ask her about this bush kitchen she spends several days at each month. She says besides what one might expect, there is a garden (to grow fresh produce) and a solar dryer. This Kagora has used to experiment, dehydrating all kinds of fruits and veggies.
“We’re having success with apples, oranges, cabbage, beetroot, par-boiled sweet potatoes, bananas and tomatoes. Sometimes the women are out on extended patrol for a seven-day stretch. It’s hot. They’re in the bush. They need to carry ration packs—light in weight and nutritious—to sustain them.”
When in camp, the meals are varied with a focus on nutrition, flavor “and making sure they have enough energy to do their jobs.”
“We use a lot of dried grains mixed with fresh produce, both vegetables and fruits. The focus in sourcing is on empowering the local community and supporting small entrepreneurs (who might have banana farms or tomato gardens).”
She has recruited and trained vegan chefs, also from the local community. She is, ultimately, responsible for providing nutritious, delicious vegan food for 150 staff, rangers and guests a month—a number that is set to grow.
Biting the Apple
Having said that, working with the Akashinga is just one bite of Kagora’s vegan apple.
Back in Harare she has an experimental garden. “My home garden is my test lab.”
Growing herbs is a focus.
“This allows me to experiment more with different flavors. I especially like working with turmeric, garlic and ginger, fresh parsley, lemongrass and mint. A lot depends on what is in season.”
She does a lot with okra and peanut butter, both okra and peanuts being locally sourced crops.
Her home gardener visits the camp with her and trains the camp gardeners in what they’ve found to be successful.
Meanwhile, she is on that mission, thorough her business, African Vegan on a Budget, to develop and promote “African roots” veganism both in Zimbabwe and give her time everywhere.
Not that she sits around proselytizing or condemning meat-eaters. Her story and goals have a pragmatic edge.
For the vegan neophyte, she suggests following the guidelines of filmmaker James Cameron’s wife, Suzy Amis (the pair are known as the vegan power-couple) who suggests taking one meat-based meal a day off the menu.
Answering the Kitchen Call
Kagora, from a young age, loved to cook. Was drawn to the kitchen.
But her mom thought hospitality management a more suitable career choice for her daughter. So after completing high school in Harare, Kagora enrolled at the International Hotel School in Cape Town, South Africa to study hospitality management.
Which went pretty well until, in her third—practical—year, she was given the option to choose a department and specialize. She selected the kitchen. And immediately knew this was her calling.
Wanting hands-on experience, she left the school and walked into what was then a smaller, café version of what would grow into Plant—one of Cape Town's favorite vegan eateries. She asked if she might intern with them. She had no idea it was a vegan eatery. In fact, knew nothing about veganism.
It was there that she delved, then dived, into veganism. “I started off knowing nothing about vegan culture and having to be taught what it was. This was about five years ago. I was surprised to learn about the benefits of vegan plant-based diets compared to many others. I was also wonderfully surprised to find that vegan food can taste really good.
“Now my focus has developed. I want to teach and educate people. Incorporating a plant-based meal per day in your diet has major health and environmental benefits,” she says.
Since she’s returned to Harare, Kagora has studied plant-based nutrition online through Cornell University and is currently studying health, safety and nutrition through the University of South Africa (Unisa).
Kagora tells me she is well aware that meat is considered a cornerstone of an African meal. And yes, being vegan is viewed as a Western construct. And veganism in Western culture is typically for the affluent.
Incubator for Veganism
But looking at Zimbabwe in the light of food security and nutrition, the impact of climate change on food sources, the economy and the political scenario, there is this interconnected response.
“Zimbabwe right now is a perfect incubator for veganism,” she says.
“The electricity goes out from 5 a.m. to midnight. (It is turned on for five hours starting at midnight.) There are no fridges, no generators. Families are vegetarian by force. Necessity. From vegetarian to vegan is not too much of a leap.
“In Zimbabwe now, soy chunks are a staple. They are called ‘nyama’ (meat) by the people. These are what most people eat every day, along with pap (similar to grits) and greens.”
She is also of the view that veganism originated in Africa.
“I can speak from my own lineage,” she says.
“My mother doesn’t eat as much meat as the average person. My grandmother even less. She won’t touch red meat at all. My great-grandmother who died about five years ago didn’t touch meat.
“Doing some research, I found that our ancestors only used to slaughter animals—cows, buck, wildlife, whatever—for a ceremony, a tradition, a celebration. We didn’t kill or mass-produce meat for the consumption of human beings.”
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Dinner with Chef Cola
She blames colonization and Western practices for “99 percent of the meat culture we know as Africans.”
Part of her mission is to reintroduce the “mainly plant-based culture of my ancestors” in Zimbabwe. She also wants to share her Africa-style veganism and the recipes she’s experimenting with, with the world.
“Veganism to me is a lifestyle choice. There are tremendous natural benefits. It has taken patience and practice to learn how to cook vegan. And one needs to pay attention and be sure one is giving the body what it needs.”
Something else on Kagora’s menu are her “Dinner with Chef Cola” pop-ups for 20 guests at a time. Right now she holds them in Harare and Cape Town. Her intention is to offer an intimate culinary adventure with entertainment and a chance to connect over food, culture and more.
The theme is always African-inspired—with elements of Western cuisine.
She says her focus with her prepared dishes is to present the beauty of plant-based African culture and cuisine. Her mission is to introduce people to vegan food and lifestyle and to further inspire those already familiar with veganism with her brand of plant-based cooking.
Her goal for 2020 is to take her African vegan message to Kenya and Europe.
Her ultimate goal? To showcase veganism from Africa—her take on it—in the city of her childhood, New York.
Connect with Chef Cola on Facebook.