After turning down a job in bio-engineering because of the unethical animal testing, Sunny Satva found a passion for impact investing and venture building in 2020 and founded the Vegan Africa Fund (VAF) to support an African vegan future.
Sunny spoke with VIVAS about the growing number of vegan businesses and animal rights movements in Africa.
Tell us a bit about your background
I grew up in Las Vegas, one of the fastest-warming cities in the US due to climate change.
My passion for protecting the environment started very early. I grew up in a multi-ethnic family with ancestors from over two dozen countries.
A skill I gained early in life was perspective. I have friends and family all over the ethnic, political, gender, and socioeconomic spectrum and have always been surrounded by people from various backgrounds.
I love collaboration, creative engineering solutions, and work that uplifts myself and others.
Growing up in Vegas, I saw firsthand the value of trusting your instincts and balancing risks – if you follow your gut, a risk may come with a great reward. I like to take chances on myself, as I have faith that the highest power is always with me.
How did your vegan journey come about?
My vegan journey began in 2015 when my partner was diagnosed with cancer and given just months to live.
Some healthcare experts suggested that they transition to a plant-based diet, and after learning about the benefits, I learned to cook vegan for my partner and myself.
I saw firsthand how eating a vegan diet can lead to a more vibrant life and decided to continue eating vegan after their passing.
You have a degree in bio-engineering, but your work to date has focused mainly on fundraising and campaigning: How and why did you get into this?
Some of the biggest problems facing humanity and the planet can be solved with technological innovation.
I got a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering because I wanted to have the tools and knowledge to solve some of these problems.
I graduated from Washington State University and worked for the US Army research office to contribute to cutting-edge research.
I was involved in a project that tested on kangaroo rats; this was the first and only time I participated in animal testing.
The conditions and tests the animals lived through were tragic, and I realized that I couldn’t continue to work in this way.
In 2017 I declined to practice a job that involved animal testing, gave away all of my leather shoes and bags, and began identifying as an ethical vegan.
I vowed to myself to do work that promotes wellness for all life. I still see bioengineering as an integral part of how I’ll shape the world, though I’ve taken some time out of the field.
I began activist campaigning and fundraising in 2018 when I worked for the non-profit New York Public Interest Research Group in New York City. I led a team to raise millions of dollars to fund student advocacy, lobbying for renewable energy, and public health protection as an Outreach Director.
I was then enlightened to the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) and switched my campaigning focus in 2019. I fully support UBI, as people can invest in themselves and ultimately live happier, healthier, more fulfilled lives with a guaranteed income.
I realized I wanted to focus my entrepreneurial energy on Africa in 2020. I spent most of the past year in East Africa, and I want to use my skills, network, and passion to create a more equitable and sustainable world.
Tell us about veganism in Africa: How does it differ (if it does) from in the west? How much of a focus is on health/plant-based eating versus animal rights?
In Africa, a common culture has idealized western practices – in media and films, eating steaks and burgers is seen as affluent.
Many people aspire to emulate the perceived abundant lifestyle of the west, and abundance has become associated with eating animal products.
The vegan movement is calling this out as false and encouraging a return to the continent’s roots and eating plant-based.
The vegan movement seems to be growing in all African nations, with many calling veganism a return to a more traditional way of life.
Like in the west, personal reasons for going vegan range from health-centric to a focus on animal rights or environmental conservation.
What are the main challenges facing vegan business owners in Africa?
I discovered Vegan Basket, our first portfolio venture, through a friend on the Kenya coast.
When I met the owners, I learned about their struggle – their access to technology was limited, all of their accounting and inventory was done by hand, the owners were burnt out overworking themselves, and they had no access to external funds.
They had the passion for successfully running their restaurant for two years. Still, they couldn’t expand fully into their vision: basket deliveries with fresh produce and vegan products inside.
We are launching VAF to provide African vegan start-ups with more access to growth opportunities.
The biggest problem facing the entrepreneurial community in Africa is a lack of capital.
Most founders initially invest in their own business, yet generational wealth, inheritance, or start-up capital is rare for African entrepreneurs.
VAF sent out a survey of vegans in over a dozen African countries in June 2021.
Vegans in Africa felt they lacked community, and entrepreneurs shared their biggest struggles as a lack of expansion capital.
A 2019 African Development Bank Report shows that the biggest challenges facing sustainable development are infrastructure gaps and an “undercapitalized start-up ecosystem.”
As someone who believes we need to democratize access to capital, I started the Vegan Africa Fund to give founders the initial momentum they need to succeed and feel supported by the global vegan community.
What is the aim of the Vegan Africa Fund?
The goal of VAF is to support the vegan future of Africa through venture building and venture capital.
There is a wealth gap, infrastructure gap, and technology gap between Africa and the developed world.
Vegan Africa Fund seeks to address these gaps while we make veganism accessible and produce high-value in-demand products at scale for local markets and export.
At this time, African food exports are primarily raw materials, which don’t have significant profit margins.
We encourage investing in processing centers to add value to raw materials close to the source and exporting valuable products instead of raw materials.
Bloomberg Analytics suggests that the global plant-based foods market will grow over 500% in the next decade.
We want to ensure that African entrepreneurs have access to this wealth creation opportunity.
Africa never had an Industrial Revolution – the continent needs serious investment in machines, technology, and infrastructure to meet the demands of the years to come.
Vegan Africa Fund enables global investors and vegans in Africa to hold a stake in the vegan future of Africa through VAF.
Has veganism seen a similar growth in acceptance as in the west?
Vegan as a label isn’t well-known in Africa, but living a plant-based lifestyle is.
While many people might not know the word “vegan” when they hear it, many traditional meals in Kenya and Uganda are plant-based.
In Ethiopia, members of the Orthodox Church eat mostly vegan at least 200 days a year as part of a religious “fasting.”
A plant-based diet has been the default diet in many parts of the continent, though this is changing.
The African middle class is growing, and part of this growth is leading towards higher animal product consumption through fast food.
There is an excellent opportunity to produce vegan fast food and meat/dairy alternatives in African markets for consumers who have historically eaten plant-based but currently have limited access to processed plant-based foods.
Tell us about the vegan business scene in Africa
We are growing alongside the network of vegan start-ups across Africa and have connected with founders ready to expand to meet the growing demand for vegan products.
We’ve seen a lot more vegan dairy alternatives entering the market, a massive boom in vegan meat substitutes, and lots of room for growth in the vegan seafood, vegan leather, and vegan egg industries in Africa.
In the countries where these are based – Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria, and South Africa, respectively, demand for vegan products is exploding.
I’ve seen an increased demand for vegan fish, yogurt, and dairy substitutes on the Kenya coast.
When we conducted a survey of vegans across 13 African countries, most wished they had increased access to vegan dairy options.
There are also incredible animal rights movements going on in Africa.
Some of my favorite organizations with an animal-rights focus include research-focused Animal Advocacy Africa based in South Africa, Akashinga, an all-women vegan anti-poaching group in Zimbabwe and South Africa, the Vegan Society of Uganda, and the Vibrant Vegan Society of Ghana.
There are many funds around that are vegan, sustainable, and impact-driven: Why is there a need for a specific Vegan Africa Fund?
Several investment funds are vegan, sustainable, and impact-driven. However, until I formed VAF, no VC was focused on scaling vegan businesses in Africa.
The vegan market is growing, and our catalog of vegan companies in Africa is expanding as entrepreneurs reach out to become part of the network.
We are raising our fund to empower African founders who otherwise have limited opportunities and access to scale their ventures.
You’ve used the term ‘vegan,’ as opposed to ‘plant based’ in the name of your organization and fund: Why?
Using ‘vegan’ for the branding was a natural and easy decision.
As early as 1944, vegetarians who consumed no animal products began calling themselves vegans.
I considered the term plant-based, but unfortunately, this term has been obscured and has no real ethical or scientific meaning.
I want to live in a world where animals are respected as peers on earth, utterly free from being consumed or productized.
To get there, we need to go vegan and build the plant, fungi, renewably powered future!
What are your main achievements with VAF to date?
The Vegan Africa Fund is fulfilling our vision of providing equitable opportunities to vegan entrepreneurs and communities.
We’ve formed an equity deal with Vegan Basket to help them expand. In this time, we doubled their kitchen size and seating capacity, developed technical integrations as a point-of-sale system, and helped them increase month-over-month profits for the last four months.
We sponsored the Vegan UG Football team spreading awareness throughout Uganda, and have, through this program, helped over a dozen individuals adopt a plant-based lifestyle.
Vegan Africa Fund has grown our network to vegans in over a dozen African countries, and we are building a global network of VAF investors.
What are your plans/vision for the future?
My vision for the future is focused on supporting the vegan evolution in Africa.
We will invest in infrastructure that will be used as co-manufacturing facilities to scale vegan brands.
VAF hopes to lead a Vegan African Accelerator program to help founders with business development, customer acquisition, and strategy.
I see myself supporting fungal research in Africa, running a mushroom innovation lab, and putting my bioengineering skills to work.
We also are working on some exciting creative products, including a video game and a documentary.
I’m ultimately passionate about creating a collaborative, equitable, and vegan future.