Interview

In Focus: Nutrition champions in Nigeria

Headshots and titles
Tell us a little about yourself …

Hakeem: I am an entrepreneur and founder of Veggie Victory, Nigeria's first vegan restaurant and food company. We veganise the Nigerian cuisine in our restaurant and developed VegChunks, a soy and wheat meat substitute produced in Nigeria. 

Uduak: I work for the Scaling Up Nutrition Business Network (SBN), providing support to the country teams and ensuring they have the right resources to deliver on their individual country strategies. SBN is co-hosted by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the World Food Programme, and I work out of GAIN’s Nigeria office. I have a background in Agricultural Economics and Sustainable Development, and for the last 8 years have worked on nutrition programmes including Large Scale Food Fortification, Home Fortification, Social Behavioural Change Communication and Public-Private Engagement on Nutrition.

 

What got you interested in nutrition? 

Hakeem: I am looking at nutrition from a health and environmental sustainability perspective. I became a vegetarian more than 25 years ago (and am now a vegan), and I immediately felt the benefits of changing my diet and nutrition. I would like to give as many people as possible the opportunity to be impacted in the same way so Veggie Victory joined the SBN in 2016. Thanks to the NutriPitch competition* and training programme, I gained a better understanding of nutrition and have been able to apply that to our product development. I am also excited to be part of the global movement to promote more plant-based diets, something I believe is necessary to feed 10 billion people within planetary boundaries (as in the EAT-Lancet Commission).**

Uduak: My mother was a public health nurse, I often went along with her on community outreach and was intrigued by all the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding which she often explained during counselling sessions.

 

Veggie meals

 

What do you work on, and how does it relate to public private engagement for nutrition? 

Hakeem: In Nigeria, like many other countries, we are experiencing the double burden of malnutrition: we struggle with challenges of undernutrition at the same time overweight and obesity are contributing to rises in non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The government is working to help promote better nutrition and health, and I see VegChunks as a way to contribute to addressing both challenges. Compared to other parts of the world, there are very few meat substitutes in the African market but our products are a good source of protein for those who are consuming too much meat and for those who cannot afford animal source proteins. Plus, thanks to the nutrition training we received through the NutriPitch Competition, we will be fortifying our products with essential nutrients that can be difficult to get when people are not eating animal source foods.  As we expand our product and consumer base, we plan to increase our work with government and civil society to help raise awareness about healthy and sustainable diets more generally, and how plant-based products can support better nutrition in Nigeria. 

Uduak: Over the past 2 years I have coordinated the Scaling Up Nutrition Business Network (SBN) in Nigeria, supporting members to mainstream nutrition into their business strategies with a focus on their workforce or customer base. As the network secretariat, SBN has been instrumental in ensuring that the private sector was part of the process of developing the Action Plan for the National Food and Nutrition Policy in Nigeria. We support public-private sector dialogues to resolve issues that have a bearing on the ability of the private sector to adequately contribute to improved nutrition. 

 

What is exciting about your work? 

Hakeem: With our VegChunks, we are pioneers in the African context – that is very exciting in itself. Moreover, Nigeria has a large and growing population, as well as a powerful economy which makes us a key country not only for Africa but globally. We need to find solutions that work here so we can help shape changes to diets and nutrition that are good for people and the planet. I really see the value of our product in helping to make protein and other important nutrients more available and affordable, without exacerbating climate and land use issues.

Uduak: It is dynamic. The stakeholders I interact with are so diverse and it never gets boring. Being part of a process that leads to progress in the ability of a business to meet its nutrition commitment or improve ways of working between business and government provides a real sense of achievement.

 

Winners of the 2018 SUN Business Network Pitch Competition in Nigeria. 

 

What is challenging about it? 

Hakeem: We have had operational challenges as a small business, such as accessing the medium-size capital investments, trying to navigate the complicated regulatory environment and creating stable supply chains without reliable infrastructure. Understanding the complexities of nutrition and communicating that information to the public can also be a challenge. But behaviour change is the big elephant in the room. People like to stay within their comfort zone and eat what they grew up eating. Plus, meat is still seen as a symbol of high social status. So to help support a shift in mindset around meat, we will need to do a lot of awareness raising about health, nutrition and the environmental impact of diets. One big advantage we have is our youth. Nigeria has a very young population and youth tend to be open minded and future-oriented so we think there is a lot we can do to empower youth to make healthy and environmentally sustainable food choices.

Uduak: Nutrition is complex – we want to work with a variety of partners to help make a range of healthy foods available, affordable and desirable so it’s easy for consumers to make choices that support nutritious diets. There are so many great ideas for businesses, projects and collaborations that could help improve nutrition but resources are limited. It is a challenge to choose who to support - and how – since we can’t help all ideas become a reality.  

 

What’s the latest news?

Hakeem: We are available now in many parts of Nigeria and started reaching out to other countries in Africa, including Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya which have similar market conditions. We are also in the process of developing more plant-based products. Plus, we are working to put Nigeria on the vegan advocacy map with ProVeg International.

Uduak: The SUN Pitch Competition is rolling out in various SUN countries over the next couple of months, with opportunities for companies to apply for the chance to access funding, support and training to scale up their businesses to positively impact nutrition. One winner from each country will then go on to the Global SUN Pitch Competition in Singapore next year (2020).  

 

NutriPitch flyer

 

What’s next? 

Hakeem: We are planning to expand so our products are available nationwide. We will also be working to influence policy changes in Nigeria (and globally) that support plant-based diets. We see plant-based diets as an important way to improve nutrition and health of people, to encourage the production and consumption of climate friendly food and to promote responsible land management, especially in Nigeria where this is a big issue.  

Uduak: We will start preparing for the Global SUN Pitch Competition in Singapore next year (2020). This will be a great opportunity to showcase interesting businesses, and link them with potential investors to help develop and expand their work. There are many aspects of nutrition that need addressing – to ensure that all nutrients covered – not from a single food but from the diet.  This will be an exciting opportunity to help support food companies and other SMEs, and explore best ways to work together to promote healthy diets.

 

 
Has this work made you change your mind about anything?

Hakeem: When we started our company a few years ago, people thought we were weird. Now, however, the link between health, diets and the environment has become a big topic in Nigeria and around the world. I am fascinated by how society changes and how trends are shaped.

Uduak: Yes, I was quite surprised at how limited the understanding of nutrition is, especially among so many micro, small and medium scale companies. We want to ensure that people get all the right vitamins and nutrients from a diverse, healthy diet and work with partners who can help promote foods that are accessible, affordable and nutritious for everyone.

 

If you had to have a slogan, or a strapline, for this work, what would it be?

Hakeem: Changing Nigeria one bite a time.

Uduak: The Business of Nutrition.

 

 What is your favourite food or meal?

Hakeem: Vegan Suya (Nigerian style peppered barbecue).

Uduak: Garri and okro soup (West African soup made with cassava dough, okra, spinach, crayfish, meat, and pumpkin seed).

 

 

Find out more about the SUN Business Network in Nigeria.

Find out more about Veggie Victory.

 

Veg chunks

 

*NutriPitch is one of SBN Nigeria’s flagship events, offering SMEs the opportunity to receive business development and nutrition training. Learn more here: Nigeria NutriPitch Competition.

**GAIN believes that animal-source foods (ASF) – including fish, meat, eggs, and dairy products – can be an important component of nutritious diets but specific recommendations vary depending on context. ASF contain several essential nutrients that are not normally found in plant-source foods (e.g., vitamin B12), and others that are more complete (e.g., protein) or more readily usable by humans (e.g., iron, zinc). As ASF tend to be dense in nutrients, relatively small amounts can be eaten to fill multiple micronutrient gaps. Therefore ASF can be important for young children, especially in resource-poor settings as a way to help improve health and reduce vulnerability to undernutrition. At the same time, GAIN recognises that most healthy adults can meet their nutrient requirements from well-planned, plant-based diets and excess consumption of certain ASF may contribute to negative impacts on health, particularly in populations at risk of overweight/obesity. Moreover, ASF production can have a negative impact on the environment and GAIN is supportive of efforts to ensure they are produced sustainably. These (health impacts and environmental sustainability considerations) are topics of ongoing debate and evolving scientific understanding, to which GAIN aims to contribute.

 

 

Note from the editor: Nutrition Connect aims to share examples of partnerships and collaborations that result in positive nutrition outcomes. We seek examples that objectively demonstrate the potential of public private engagement, in particularly those which are underpinned by sound methodology, including evaluation. However, Nutrition Connect and its funders do not endorse any specific company, government or partnership, and in all cases a single example may not reflect the institution’s overall impact on food and nutrition security. For more information, the Editorial approach sets out our policy for content management, including case studies. Any related queries should be sent to nutritionconnect@gainhealth.org.