/ 22 December 2022

There’s a place for the herbivore at the braai

Made from plants: Products that look, taste and feel like meat include smoky bacon and biltong. Photos: Delwyn Verasamy

It has been a surprisingly eventful year for purveyors of plant-based meat alternatives.

For years these products were innocently stocked in supermarket freezers, often ignored by meat-eaters until having to face the predicament of hosting a vegan at a braai.

That all changed when the department of agriculture decided to clamp down on plant-based meat alternatives with regulations that could see them seized from supermarket shelves.

If that 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 palaver had the effect of bringing more attention to the industry, says Anneke Malan, the company’s co-owner. 

Rather than feeling downtrodden by the dispute — which has been put on pause until at least mid-May, when the interdict sought against the department is set to expire — Malan and Herbi Vohr’s chief executive, Daniel Malan, are hopeful. This is as the plant-based lifestyle has become more mainstream, with more options in supermarkets and at restaurants for vegans and others just wanting to cut down on meat.

Daniel Malan, Chief executive of Herbi Vohr and Amenna Malan, co-owner of Herbi Vohr

‘Angry vegans’

The pair sit in their lush Joburg garden, which has recently been battered by a summer hailstorm. The neighbour’s cat, Raku, has positioned himself in front of Daniel, who talks above the soft coos of their rescued chickens, Daisy, Rosie and Poppy.

“The point is, if you look at it from a human point of view, it has taken us a long time to get where we are now. But if you look at it in a global sense, it’s like an instant. It has taken so long and so many thousands of years just to get where we are. And all of this is happening in a very short amount of time,” Daniel says, reflecting on the state of the plant-based industry today.

Anneke describes Daniel — the mastermind behind Herbi Vohr’s product range, which includes vegan steaks, bacon and pastrami — as a mixture between an artist and an alchemist.

For Daniel, it was important that the products look and taste as close to the original as possible. 

“A lot of people who are not vegans or vegetarians ask why we would want to eat stuff that looks and tastes like meat. But we didn’t stop eating meat because we don’t like the taste of it. It is for ethical reasons,” he says.

“And we still like to eat things that we are familiar with … Also, we initially made this for vegans, but I think what we make is important to show people that they don’t have to eat animals to have something similar to what they’re used to.”

Anneke adds: “Some vegans are actually freaked out by 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 you realise that being an angry vegan actually has a counterproductive effect. So instead of trying to exclude people who are not vegan, we should actively include them and make it easier for them.”

This more pragmatic attitude towards the market also underlies 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 do eat a lot of meat,” says John Uys, On The Green Side’s general manager of sales and distribution.

“Hence why the products that you make in this category, plant-based meats, have to appeal to flexitarians. We need people who eat meat to tap into our category. That’s going to drive growth.”

Uys says On The Green Side aims to make a plant-based diet more accessible to people who want something different they can adapt into 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 fillets that are closer to the unprocessed protein.

“We want adoption to happen on a larger scale. People try plant-based, because it’s a novelty. But they don’t go back to it for various reasons,” Uys explains.

“With our products, because it’s a whole cut, clean label product … you can plug it into any meal. You can make a Thai chicken curry, a Malaysian satay, Korean barbecue or just a South African braai. But you can’t do all that 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 recently rolled out a vegan range using On The Green Side’s plant-based chicken. In doing so, the coffee franchise has followed in the footsteps of a number of other well-known restaurant brands, including Burger King and Nandos, which recently revamped its plant-based offering by launching its “Great Pretender” menu items.

Competition between restaurants, as well as major retailers such as Checkers and Woolworths, has driven growth in the category, Uys says.

“That is driving sales [and] it seems that South Africans are very open to at least try plant-based. So there is definitely some movement. I must say that I am surprised by the uptake.”

Earlier this year, Deloitte published a report suggesting the market for plant-based meat products in the United States was more limited than many previously thought. The US population open to repeat buying plant-based alternatives may have already reached a saturation point. 

The number of consumers who sometimes buy these products for themselves or their households did not grow in 2022, according to Deloitte.

Deloitte’s research coincides with recent reports that Beyond Meat’s growth has stalled. Launched in the US a decade ago, Beyond Meat was among 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 point.

But it is more difficult to determine whether South Africa’s plant-based market is growing or slowing. There is almost no data that shows the extent to which the country’s plant-based market has grown over the years, remarks Donovan Will, the director of ProVeg South Africa. 

ProVeg advocates for the transition to plant-based lifestyles and economies, working with the public and private sectors.


Research conducted by global consulting company Nielsen showed that in 2017 only 0.1% of South Africans were vegans, 2% were vegetarian and 14% were flexitarians. Without data from previous years, or the ones that followed, this still doesn’t tell the whole story.

“But then the next thing to look at would be new products, the longevity of products that arrived a while ago and are still here,” Will notes.

“For example, Beyond Meat has been here for just over four years and they are selling two burgers for R120. The fact that they are still here and still selling products shows that there is demand.”

Greater variety in retailers and more options at restaurants are also markers of demand. Pick n Pay offers at least five brands that make plant-based meat alternatives. So does Checkers. Woolworths has its own extensive line of plant-based food products.

“It’s definitely growing, but there is very little evidence to show that it is growing because of vegans and vegetarians, because of how small a group they represent,” Will says. “When the growth rate is starting that small, it does not explain all these products in Woolworths.” 

Demand for these products is clearly driven by people who want healthier and more sustainable food, Will adds. This gives brands such as Herbi Vohr and On the Green Side access to a far greater market, while also making the transition to a plant-based lifestyle easier for the unconverted to chew on.

“If you ask the average South African: ‘Do you care about the environment? Do you care about your health? Do you care about animals?’ Everyone says yes,” Will notes.

“There are very few people who will say: ‘I don’t care at all about my health. I don’t care at all about the environment. I don’t care at all about animals.’ But would you be willing to go vegetarian for all that? No … So by offering products that taste exactly the same [as meat], you don’t have to convince anyone of the health benefits, the environmental benefits or any benefits. You just say here is a better product.”