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Travel News South Africa

#AfricaMonth: Jane Nshuti, transforming African foodways with plant-based cuisine

This Africa Month, we connect with Jane Nshuti, the founder of Tamu by Jane and a passionate plant-based African food educator. More than just a chef, Jane's mission extends far beyond the kitchen. Her delicious recipes and engaging food philosophy intertwine to educate on food security, community, and the rich tapestry of African cuisine.
Jane Nshuti, Founder, Tamu by Jane
Jane Nshuti, Founder, Tamu by Jane

Self-taught and driven by a desire to nourish "tummies, souls and minds," Jane's journey has led her to create Tamu by Jane, a haven for those seeking healthier, plant-based meals. From easy-to-order vegan Sunday lunches delivered straight to your door to captivating culinary demonstrations, Jane is a true advocate for a more vibrant and conscious approach to food.

As Jane gears up to showcase her talents at the upcoming Good Life Show in Cape Town from 31 May to 2 June at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), we chat with her about her passion for African foodways and the impact she's making.

Africa Month is a time to celebrate the continent and its rich heritage. How does food play a role in shaping African identity?

Africa is one of the largest continents in the world, with diverse cultures and people, and the richness of African food reflects this diversity. From East to West, North to South, African food is delectable and worth exploring.

Young Africans are reclaiming their heritage and decolonising aspects introduced during the colonial era, including reevaluating African cuisine. There's a global surge in interest in authentic African ingredients and foods, driven by their health benefits. This curiosity signifies a rising appreciation for African food's richness and nutritional value.

African foods play a significant role in cultural preservation. As African cuisine becomes more accessible globally, it offers a chance to explore its diverse cultures and fosters pride in heritage among Africans worldwide, encouraging them to express their identity through food and introduce new flavours to the world.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey into becoming a plant-based African food educator?

I was born in Rwanda in 1985 into a typical family with a mother, father, and siblings. I had a happy and fortunate childhood until the age of nine when tragedy struck.

At nine, my siblings and I found ourselves in a refugee camp in North Kivu, DRC, where we became orphans due to war. While my older siblings sought food, I prepared meals using their findings and UNHCR food aid. We adopted a plant-based lifestyle out of necessity.

In late 1999, my uncle’s family relocated to South Africa, settling in Mpumalanga, in a township called Kanyamazane. We discovered mature amaranth plants in a bush, a cherished staple from Rwanda and DRC. Thrilled, we foraged these greens, surprising locals who didn't recognise their nutritional value.

Source: Temu by Jane

Despite living in an area with food scarcity, it was surprising to see food growing abundantly in backyards. Exploring food in Africa can be complex, with many viewing it through a colonial lens rather than embracing ancestral heritage. This has shaped our parents' perception of food quality, focusing on colonial standards instead of what nourishes us genetically.

However, a new generation is appreciating African heritage and traditional food wisdom. We are reconnecting with our ancestors' plant-based diet, which included root vegetables and fruits, with meat reserved for special occasions. They thrived on food preservation knowledge, cultivating their produce, and using meals as medicine.

Having thrived on a plant-based lifestyle, I am dedicated to this transformative generation reshaping the perception of food and plant-based cuisine in Africa and globally.

What inspired you to found Tamu by Jane? Tell us about your mission – how do your food education initiatives empower others?

During my time in the refugee camp, I, as a young girl, shouldered the responsibility of cooking, a duty I didn't always cherish, especially as it fell on me instead of my brother who was also at home. However, these responsibilities imparted invaluable lessons that guide me to this day.

My older siblings earned little, often less than minimum wage, leaving me to manage our household. My sister would give me money to purchase food from the market, intended to last the month. Initially, the funds only stretched for a week or two, leaving us to struggle for the rest of the month.

I used part of my sister's money to start a vegetable business. I bought vegetables in bulk and resold them to our neighbours, helping extend our food supply for the whole month. This venture marked the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, teaching me valuable business skills and confidence.

This mirrors the experiences of many African women in business, who often start from a place of scarcity. Some of my role models have built empires that serve their communities and leave a lasting legacy. Their success stories and my background have given me the resilience to believe in myself and work towards my business goals.

They inspire me to empower my African community by restoring and documenting ancestral food knowledge through dinner clubs, cooking classes, and visual and written documentation. I believe this will give Africans the freedom to choose a lifestyle that heals and makes them proud.

Source: Temu by Jane

How do you define African foodways and why is it important to you to promote them?

African foodways unlike other continents, has seen significant left behind and due to lost cultural practices, some significant ways of our ancestors have been forgotten along the ways

Apart from that, Since colonisation, Africans have been seen as lesser humans, inevitably, our food has also been looked down upon. This has lead to Africans finding no need to showcase their cuisines.

There are many misconceptions attached to African food such as the following few examples of comments I received while surveying how people felt about African cuisine.

• "The only African food I was introduced to was to starchy, to heavy, and too meaty"
• "Afican food doesn’t look appetising and lacks sophistication"

These misconceptions are due to the lack of exposure to the authenticity of our foodways.

As Africans, we have a responsibility towards challenging the bias against African food.

It takes a lot of emotional effort to prepare, create, discover, explore, invent, taste and fellowship when it comes to food. Thus, food sits on a risen emotional seat in the human world.

As an African proverb says: "He who eats alone can not discuss the taste of food with others."

When we share our food with others, we are inviting them to come closer and get to know us at an emotional level. As we open our cuisine to them, we open our hearts, share our pride, and expose who we truly are.

This is African foodways which we inherited from our ancestors and this is the only way the works will be able to truly connect with us.

Jane Nshuti, Founder, Tamu by Jane
Jane Nshuti, Founder, Tamu by Jane

Could you share some insights into your food philosophies and how they influence your recipes?

My idea is not necessarily to cook how my mother did. I can adopt some of the techniques our mothers used in the kitchen, however, I believe in looking at our indigenous ingredients with a fresh eye.

I believe in using those ingredients to their full capacity and that will not happen if I only stick to the dishes my mother made.

I believe in using African indigenous food to prepare meals which can suit anyone’s palate, and in a form that’s familiar to them while highlighting ingredients that this beautiful continent has to offer.

In what ways do you believe plant-based African cuisine can contribute to food security and community well-being?

Most of the African ingredients are drought-resistant and don’t take a lot to grow them. Grains such as sorghum.

Teff, fonio, are nutritionally powerhouse and very sustainable, unfortunately despite the benefits of these grains, they are still not commercially available which means the world can not access them comfortably. That’s why African food advocacy needs to continue to promote food safety.

How do you approach educating others about plant-based eating within the context of African culinary traditions?

I use storytelling to communicate the best of our ancestors, I invite people to dinner clubs to break bread together and I over to share my knowledge through cooking classes to those who want to dive into African foodways.

Many African countries have rich traditions of using indigenous plants for food. How can we celebrate and promote these sustainable practices?

We must start by documenting them for the next generation and share them with others. We need to understand their usefulness and value, that’s when the celebration will start.

What challenges have you faced in your journey as a plant-based African food educator, and how have you overcome them?

The road is lonely. Sometimes it feels like a few of us pioneering this way of living gets hard. There is a pushback for people who are still comfortable with the familiar instead of embracing the new but yet ancient.

As we celebrate Africa Month, what message or advice do you have for individuals interested in exploring or embracing African cuisine, especially from a plant-based perspective?

I would encourage them to approach this lifestyle with a celebratory mindset and they will be amazed at how they will love the transitional process

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