Eve Samyuktha is the founder of Vegans of Shanghai (VoS) and senior Sales Consultantof Plant Based Consulting China. Eve spoke with ACE Executive Director Leah Edgerton on July 8, 2019. This is a summary of their conversation.
How did you get into vegan advocacy?
Reason for my transition: The ethics
I have been vegan for seven years now, and my transition was a process. Back in India, there was an overlap between the pet welfare and vegan communities. So, every time I went to pet rescue or adoption events, I would find a couple of vegans there. I thought vegans were extremists and that it was extreme to talk about farmed animals in the same way as cats and dogs. I thought chickens had low intelligence and it was okay to stun and eat them. I thought I couldn’t be wrong because I was 28, I had a master’s degree, and I considered myself “a person of science.”
I believed that humans have a right to eat certain kinds of animals, that we evolved alongside farmed animals, and I didn’t see a reason not to eat them. I once had an online debate with a fellow “person of science,” an anthropologist. His proposition was that human beings were never meant to eat meat. He sent me a link to a study suggesting that there is evidence that most of us could be herbivores or even frugivores. I read it multiple times that night and didn’t know how to respond. I showed it to my peers and they said it was inconclusive. I didn’t message him back and went offline for a month.
Importance of graphic imagery
Way before this debate, I owned a bag and shoe repair business for which I bought a lot of leather. One day, a PETA activist came to my office and showed me pictures of how baby cows are skinned for leather, and I didn’t want to look at them. But after that debate and after reading that article sent to me by the anthropologist, I looked at those pictures again and it was only then that I gathered the courage to watch videos showing how factory farmed animals are treated. The more I watched the videos, the more it affected me, and eventually, I couldn’t physically swallow the meat anymore.
In the modern vegan movement, we are told not to show graphic imagery, but if I hadn’t seen that, I wouldn’t have changed. If I was only exposed to these articles, I would have just debated the idea in my head; but watching the videos and seeing the reality—the ethical component of veganism—is what changed me. It took a lot of self-education and training. The year I went vegan, I did a lot of passive advocacy like talking to my peers, friends, and family. That went on for about three years until I realized I wanted to be more active in my advocacy.
How did Vegans of Shanghai come to be?
Before moving to Shanghai, I used to connect with the vegan community on Facebook and Instagram. When I came to Shanghai, I couldn’t access those social media platforms, so I had to go out in person to connect with the local vegans. There were communities of ethical and religious vegetarians, but not vegans. I built the community with some fellow vegans.
Social media here is dominated by WeChat—it has the biggest user base in China with over a billion users. It is a multi-purpose messaging, social media, and mobile payment app developed by Tencent. That’s where we built our platform. We started with WeChat groups of which we now have seven. On our official WeChat account, we have 5,000+ members and our goal is to get it up to at least 10,000 members by the end of this year.
In late 2017, people from ProVeg approached us because they heard we were doing some interesting outreach events, and a few months later we were invited to ProVeg’s 50 by 40 summit where we were encouraged to take this to a whole new level. I expressed my wishes to build an organization around our mission and to go full-time, and I received a lot of networking and monetary support. Our biggest milestone was when we received funding from The Effective Altruism Fund, which is when I decided to go full time. Then we built and established a company, and we organized two online vegan challenge campaigns city wide. We began to focus more on restaurant outreach.
What is the difference between Vegans Of Shanghai and Plant Based Consulting?
Vegans of Shanghai is a non-profit platform of Plant Based Consulting—the parent company we established. It is a networking platform for anyone interested in learning about plant-based living. For invoices, we use the name Plant Based Consulting, but for all branding purposes and communications, we use the name Vegans of Shanghai because that’s the name we are known by.
What type of activities do you do?
The core activity of the group is organizing monthly community events. We organize public outreach events like meet-ups, documentary screenings, talks and sessions on nutrition, and cooking-related activities where we demonstrate how to prep and cook meals, raise awareness about different products, and tell people where to buy them. Our other primary work—which is the non-public or corporate outreach—is the restaurant outreach project.
Are you the only employee working full time? Do you have partners?
Apart from me, my business partner and co-founder Chaniece Brackeen is also full time. She has a social media management background which she has used to lead projects including building and boosting social media profiles from scratch. She has also worked for cryptocurrency companies and has been vegan since she was sixteen years old. Apart from Vegans of Shanghai, she runs her own intersectional advocacy group called AfroVeg, which caters to people of African Descent who are interested in food consciousness.
We also have Tomas, a software engineer who deals with the financial aspects, and we have Hanna who works for us part-time. Hanna works full-time for Mondelez International, the parent company of Oreos Cookies, as a Project Manager. She is the primary sales facilitator and writes a lot of Mandarin content. There are not many modern vegans that we know of who are outside our follower network, so she is a good representative of a modern Chinese vegan who has no religious or spiritual ties and has decided to be vegan for the ethics, health, and environmental reasons. Hanna is also the VoS community leader, which means she is the default host of all our offline activities.
We also have several volunteers who help us. We operate in a typical grassroots fashion.
Can you tell me more about the “corporate side” of your work?
On the corporate side or the commercial side, we make money through the advertisement revenue from ad spaces at the end of our WeChat articles. We sell these ad spaces to people who want to sell plant-based products. In our three-and-a-half years of existence, we have never paid for advertising and marketing.
We also plan to start charging for consulting. We consult international companies looking to establish their office, factory, or brand in China. We also consult importers who are looking to improve their portfolio, as well as people who want to establish their brand outside Mainland China. We have received multiple inquiries from meat- and dairy-importing companies that have started importing vegan products.
Please tell us about your restaurant outreach program—what do you do when you work with a restaurant?
The first step is meeting with the restaurants to do a menu analysis. Based on that, we offer a recipe solution, or we order it from a manufacturer. We give advice and recommendations but we never interfere in the chef’s recipe-creation process. Next, we try the new recipe. Later, we heavily market it by throwing a catchy party with around 50 to 60 people, as opposed to the traditional method where a focus group of four to six people come and taste-test the food. We create a festive theme and then people come, they taste it, and they give feedback.
The last stage is where we educate the restaurants about veganism. We keep the education part until after they have seen that there’s a market. We show them a video and we inform them about our reasons for doing this work.
An example of our work
Here’s an example from today: In the VoS group, there was a poster of an Italian restaurant advertising vegan pizza and one of the group members commented that it tasted bad. So, I contacted the owner, met with him, and discovered he was very disappointed and didn’t want to serve the pizza anymore.
I asked him to make me a pizza, and he did. After talking a bit about the ingredients, we realized that the pizza in itself tasted delicious and that the problem was that it didn’t have enough cheese because he lacked the right product..
So, I took his demand for vegan cheese (in kg per month) to the manufacturers and in the meantime, I gave him a recipe based on five ingredients he had in his refrigerator. We are meeting with him tomorrow to do our first trial with his own vegan cheese.1
Restaurant Outreach: Why we work with non-vegan restaurants
First of all, the reduction of animal products can be brought about by switching animal-based meat to plant-based meat, not just by increasing the consumption of vegan products consumed by vegans.
Second, it is very tricky to quantify the diet of every single person—it is much easier to measure the amount (in kilograms) of animal-based products a particular restaurant is buying and the amount by which they are switching. This is a practical way to say that you have made an impact. If a vegan restaurant has increased the amount of plant-based products sold twofold, it is difficult to gauge if the vegans are eating more or if the customer base is increasing (meaning new people are eating vegan food).
How do you decide which restaurants to work with?
We’ve had issues in the past with restaurants closing down after we consult with them, so we updated our method to avoid this happening again. Now, our criteria for choosing restaurants require them to (i) be in operation for a minimum of 500 days, (ii) have a robust business model, and (iii) be recommended by two other restaurant owners as a thriving business.
So far, we have consulted with over 100 restaurants, but the active ones are under 50, with the rest having closed down.
How do you follow up with the restaurants after consulting?
After an event at the restaurant, we ask the restaurants to fill out a general feedback form. If the restaurant comes to us for a repeat event, we consider that as a success. However, we don’t encourage monthly events for the same restaurant. In Shanghai, there are over 200,000 restaurants and it is not going to be possible for us to actively promote even 1% of these restaurants on a monthly basis. I touch base with once or twice a week.
I also have at least 10 or 15 volunteers who eat at the restaurants whenever they are in the area, but I don’t pay for their food. I keep close attention in the chat forums to see if things with the restaurants are running smooth and if not, then I pay them a visit. We really need one more person on the ground, and that’s why I am applying for grants. I would say that following up is the most tedious task.
How do you measure the impact of your work?
After receiving the sales data, we compare the sales of the animal-based product to its equivalent plant-based product and analyse how much reduction each restaurant was able to make.
We don’t track on a daily basis because we lack the infrastructure for that. Our goal this year is to get the data for 100 restaurants. If we can’t get 100, we’ll aim for at least 50. Our other goal for this year is to help 200 restaurants create vegan menus.
What is MeatFest, and how did it come about?
MeatFest is a festival where we raise awareness and promote domestic plant-based meat manufacturers. We promote domestic products because in Mainland China—although it’s import-friendly—the FDA filters a lot of products like Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger etc., making it difficult to import them. We saw no reason to wait for these imported products when the technology to make plant-based meat was at our disposal. For the companies, the MeatFest allowed them to raise awareness about their products.
We realized in a brainstorming session that restaurants didn’t have faith in Chinese plant-based meat suppliers, and that supplier information was not clear. So came up with a list of around 30+ supplying company names. We wanted to vet these companies and create a list for our consulting, so we decided to vet them at the MeatFest.
In a festival format, companies are required to share their business license, product license, food safety license, and other important documents, which are then submitted by the venue to the Shanghai Municipal Government where they go through a thorough vetting.
Additionally, having the suppliers attend in person meant we could observe the overall candor of the company and their employees. Also, we could check if they would be comfortable working with people who are not spiritual or Buddhist. To do that, we checked whether they would be comfortable working with “the five pungent spices.”2
Attendance and collaboration
Sixteen plant-based producers from Mainland China came to the festival. We had around 4,000 visitors. We were cautious about not collaborating with any of the vegetarian media houses since we wanted the mainstream people to attend. We partnered with a mainstream foodie website called “re men meishi” which means “hot hot food.” They have over half a million followers just in the city of Shanghai—we pitched the idea to them and we were shocked when they told us that they have never heard of plant-based meat. However, they were ready to collaborate.
Out of the sixteen companies who participated in MeatFest, we shortlisted four of them based on their production capacity, their production quality, and their overall candor ensuring customer satisfaction. We collaborated with them for a big event last month, which was our own mini company fundraising event.
Raising awareness through media coverage
The plant-based meat industry is not new to mainland China, but modern veganism which highlights the health, environmental, and ethical aspects of plant-based eating is not well known. Although the plant-based meat industry existed in mainland China long before it did in the western countries, the vegan movement is growing at a much faster pace in western countries as compared to mainland China. This is an interesting contrast.
Through the MeatFest, we got the attention of more than just the 4,000 visitors. The Shanghai TV network covered us, which was a surprise. Other local media and international media also covered the event. Newspapers like the South China Morning Post and China Daily (the largest English newspaper in China) also covered the event.
What is needed for the Chinese plant-based meat industry to be known on a global level in the same way that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are?
I would say it needs a bit of rebranding and funds for marketing—the current companies are very traditional, Buddhist, and Chinese because that’s where the demand originally came from. They also need more investment in the processing equipment to make them more competitive with animal-based meat.
What is the relationship between vegetarianism and religion in China?
Our Chinese followers have heard of vegetarianism but they do not accept it because it is too spiritual. Upon hearing the word “Su,” they automatically associate it with the Buddhism. My impression is that in Mainland China, vegetarianism is associated with religion because the meatless movement centered around religion for many years. Almost all of the companies that attended the MeatFest have a Buddhist customer base, including both Buddhist individuals and establishments. I’m not sure exactly how large a community it is, but I know it is large enough for these companies to make millions of dollars each year.
What are some of the challenges for western organizations operating in Mainland China?
In terms of vegan advocacy, we need to be very careful when we draw parallels between Chinese meat consumption and environmental impact because there isn’t enough relevant data, at least not to my knowledge. We can’t use the American environmental and health data assuming that it would represent China because per capita beef consumption is much higher for America than China. So we don’t quote much data and these are some of the common mistakes that other organizations tend to make.
What are the biggest misconceptions that international advocates have about vegan advocacy in China?
Not understanding the political situation
One of the things people don’t understand is how politically sensitive things are here. International advocates think street-side activism is possible in Mainland China, but it isn’t Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are not perceived the same way in Mainland China as they are in western countries. When someone wants to do a Cube of Truth in Shanghai, I advise them that one is free to talk about whatever they want if they have the right amount of legal resources to handle the backlash.
Not understanding the market: Vegetarians and the “five pungent spices”
The companies looking to sell vegan products in China sometimes don’t research their target customers as thoroughly as they need to. Sometimes, their products contain one or more of “the five pungent spices” which alienates the religious vegetarian community.
Not understanding digital marketing in China: Importance of WeChat
There is a huge difference between the digital marketing style in China compared to the West. The media platforms in China are heavily regulated and decentralized. We can’t use Facebook here. WeChat is the most widely used social media platform here in China.
Advice to international plant-based companies looking to launch in China
I’d advise these companies to make strategic decisions, use surveys, and talk to the local advocates working in the field before launching their products. Also, in order to officially register, international companies need a Chinese company or a Chinese agent on board. What’s more, you need a Chinese national ID card to even start an official WeChat account.
What are the biggest opportunities and challenges for vegan advocacy in China?
Opportunities: Open-minded youth & growing plant-based market
The market is very welcoming to new ideas and fresh perspectives. The younger millennials are very open minded about health- and environment-related issues and get on board quickly. It is an excellent opportunity because by sheer number, the millennial population in China supersedes the millennial population of many countries put together: Small efforts can go a long way here.
China is known for being a mass manufacturer. Mainland China has the potential of becoming the largest manufacturer of vegan products in the world. Plenty of vegan products are already here and in addition to plant-based meat manufacturers, there are plenty of yogurt manufacturers as well because it has gone mainstream. Kentucky Fried Chicken launched their new meatless burger, although it is not vegan. We are trying to reach out to see when Impossible Burger is coming to Mainland China. We also heard that Disney in Shanghai has increased their plant-based meat options.3
Challenges: Lack of funding and a centralized digital marketing platform
Apart from the obvious challenge of not having enough grants or money, the lack of a centralized digital marketing platform is one of the major challenges. Advocates need to learn to be okay with their work being small scale. It will take relatively long for the plant-based movement to grow in China, and it will take a lot of patience.
What advice do you have for international donors and volunteers on how they can support the Chinese plant-based movement?
International students and interns should work with organizations that are registered in Mainland China. Registered organizations pay taxes and there is a difference of liabilities between companies that are registered versus companies that are not registered. Donors should also be aware of whether or not a company or organization is registered. If a group isn’t registered here, the money you donate cannot be traced.
What advice do you have for local advocates looking to build a career in vegan advocacy?
Advice for restaurant outreach
If an advocate or group’s goal is to do restaurant outreach, we already have a supplier list ready in a user-friendly printable PDF format that we can share with them because these suppliers ship nationwide. Since we have built a good foundation for restaurant outreach, I would advise them to not spend their precious time reinventing the wheel and instead take the information from us.
Advice to young professionals
It is very beneficial to have a skill that can be offered to the movement. I would ask the young professionals to not pursue advocacy full time; but do it part time along with their job to master their skills, because spending advocacy grants on skill development is inefficient.
Advice to people who have mastered a skill
Pursue advocacy full time for at least 2–3 years. When you give your peak hours of the day to advocacy, it will make a huge impact.
Since conducting this interview, Eve Samyuktha told us about the following development: “We interviewed the Shanghai Disney Resort’s Chef, who has created a number of vegan options in their quick-service restaurants. The new dishes include Truffle Mushroom Clay at Mickey and Pals; GongBao Bamboo Shoot and Mushrooms with Rice at Pinocchio’s Village Kitchen; Fermented Glutinous Rice Vegetable Burger with Fries at Stargazer Grill; and Baked Sweet Potato with Mix Bean Ragout at Toy Box Café. Disney also added a variety of desserts such as Caramel Mix Nuts Banana Cake and Cranberry Pudding with Mango Compote at Remy’s Patisserie. The resort added plant-based menu options to promote more eco-conscious consumption at the resort.”