Case Studies, Systems Thinking

COMACO: Restoring the environment by creating a market for locally-farmed products

Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is famous for its prolific wildlife—elephants, lions, hippos, and leopards, just to name a few. Home to four national parks, the region is associated with natural diversity and abundance, but life is not easy for the rural communities who live within this environment.

In the 1980s, poor farming practices which had depleted soils and caused erosion reached their peak. Low crop yields and weevil infestations led to poverty and food shortages in villages. With no other option, community members turned to poaching wildlife as a way to make money and feed their families. Wildlife meat, known as bushmeat, could be eaten or sold for profit; ivory from elephant tusks was also extremely valuable and in demand on the black market. All the while, forests and wildlife habitats were being cleared as people searched for more fertile soil.

These actions satisfied the urgent short-term needs of community members but put both people and the environment at risk in the long-term. Not only that, but poaching was illegal, and punitive measures led to arrests—which didn’t do anything to address the environmental or food security challenges faced by a poacher’s family.

Dale Lewis witnessed these dynamics first-hand. As a wildlife biologist, Lewis’ early work focused on elephant conservation in the Luangwa Valley. He recalls one story in particular that illustrates the relationship between people, food security, and the environment: “In an area where a cotton company had cleared forest, a chief was asked ‘If a kudu (antelope) would come out and walk through the village, what would you do?’ The chief answered, ‘I would shoot it, unless I had enough food. Then I would admire it.’”

It was anecdotes like this that Lewis had in mind when he established Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) in 2009. COMACO is a social enterprise that trains poachers and local farmers in agroecological techniques, helps them diversify what they grow and harvest, and buys those crops at premium market prices.

The result is healthy soils and a healthy diet for rural Zambian families—plus a reduction in wildlife poaching.

Creating market incentives for conservation

COMACO takes a multi-pronged approach to ensure the well-being of people and nature. Its model provides low-income, smallholder farmers with agricultural inputs and training on climate-resilient agriculture and sustainable land management practices.

This includes introducing legume food crops and a rotational planting scheme that returns nutrients to the soil. The adoption of agroforestry techniques has also eliminated the need for expensive and harmful chemical fertilizers. COMACO farmers sign a Conservation Pledge, agreeing to abandon harmful farming and land use practices in favour of those that restore soil fertility and protect wildlife habitat. These agroecological practices have resulted in improved yields, the diversification of income for farmers, and a 78% increase in food security levels.

Dozens of farmer cooperatives have also been created to build local leadership capacity and provide support, anything from running community seed banks to organizing knowledge exchanges. Farmers not directly reached by a COMACO cooperative can tune into the enterprise’s weekly radio show, Farm Talk, to learn new agricultural techniques.

Lewis and the COMACO team knew it wasn’t enough to simply improve yields for farmers—they also needed to build a business model that made these agricultural techniques profitable. That’s why COMACO created the It’s Wild! brand. The brand processes COMACO-produced crops into added value, high-quality food products such as honey, peanut butter, and dried fruits and vegetables.

“We challenged conventional wisdom in 2003 with our first product, Chama Rice, sold under the brand It’s Wild! and grown by farmers who lived with elephants, often down the barrel of a gun,” writes Lewis of the enterprise’s first foray into the market. “We quadrupled the price that farmers were previously earning from a local trader and we asked them to surrender their guns [for poaching] in return.”

All proceeds from It’s Wild! sales go towards providing an income for farmers and are reinvested in COMACO’s farmer support programs. It’s Wild products are also sold at a lower price to Zambian consumers in an effort to establish direct farmer-consumer links and improve food security for those not directly involved in COMACO’s activities.

By providing training, support, and a viable business model, COMACO has grown to work with more than 185,500 farmers who are using agroecological techniques on nearly 1,400 square kilometres of land. Twelve thousand square kilometres of that land has also been set aside as Community Conservation Areas—environments voluntarily protected by forest guards and community members.

COMACO’s model is well-established and proven to promote knowledge exchange, achieve household food and income security, enhance the market value of crops, and reduce environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, all while placing the interests of small-scale farmers at the forefront.