By Dale Lewis
Since 2003, the non-profit company Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) has been working in Zambia to help poor farmers improve their skills, grow surpluses, and receive above-market prices for their produce in exchange for meeting conservation targets. In managing the production and sale of these nutritious and chemical-free products, COMACO has committed itself to passing on above-market-price profits to farmers in the form of raw materials if they commit to conservation.
As a result, many people enjoy healthy, delicious food products that help to support small farmers and protect wildlife. Through the It’s Wild! line of products – which includes peanut butter, honey, and fruits and vegetables – COMACO is working to fight hunger and poverty using environmentally safe land use and farming practices (participating farmers must not have any involvement in illegal logging or poaching).
We’ve built a growing following of farmers – 109,322 registered and counting – across the Luangwa Valley ecosystem, many of whom had previously struggled to grow enough food to see them through to the next harvest or earn enough money to educate and care for their families.
Stewarded by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) in close consultation with Community Resources Boards of Luangwa Valley, Producer Group Cooperatives, District Council authorities, and key government institutions, COMACO represents a pragmatic solution to several related problems that plague rural Africa: poverty, deforestation, and loss of wildlife.
We chose Zambia’s Luangwa Valley because it’s one of Africa’s most revered wildlife sanctuaries and where the scourge of poaching and snaring once claimed over 5,000 wild animals annually. COMACO has tracked the success of the farmers who have received our training in sustainable agricultural practices. With few exceptions, COMACO has silenced the guns and wildlife numbers are growing.
Equally encouraging, this innovative business model has led to an increase of 40 percent in food crop varieties among farm members. Farm prices have grown two- and three-fold since COMACO began this enterprise more than a decade ago. Farmers have also seen their annual income rise from less than $100 to $362 a year. In 2014 alone, more than $1.5 million was returned to farmers in premium-priced commodities purchases.
Our company begins with farmers and continues with the manufacture of products derived from their agricultural efforts. Once on the shelf, these products appeal to consumers through their quality and by helping them to participate in shaping a better Africa.
The program’s success has benefited immeasurably from support of people both in the food industry and in the philanthropic world to help COMACO produce competitive products and grow the business to scale with deep and lasting impact. Our learning curve is steep and the challenge to bridge food security and conservation is a race against time.
Collaboration with our partners will help us to meet that challenge. To take just two examples, large retail chains like Shop-Rite and Pick N Pay have gotten behind COMACO as part of their corporate social responsibility mission by launching It’s Wild! products through in-store promotions and offering full retail value to COMACO for consumer testing of new products. We are also grateful for our ongoing funding partners, including the Royal Norwegian Embassy to Zambia, USAID, Lundin for Africa, Mulago Foundation, World We Want, and WCS.
COMACO’s latest activities aim to reduce deforestation, the loss of soil carbon, and the resulting flow into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. To this end, COMACO is working with: local community leaders to protect forests; farmers to reduce the loss of soil carbon from poor farming practices and sequester more carbon by planting leguminous trees; technologists to provide improved cookstoves across the valley; and the World Bank and other partners to sell the resulting carbon offsets in order to benefit local communities.
Ending hunger to save wildlife is the journey COMACO began in 2003. Over a decade later, this journey has excited the imagination of people far beyond the conventional realm of conservation. It has been a journey not without occasional wrong turns. But if It’s Wild! products find themselves on shelves throughout Zambia with farmers having a safer, more secure life sharing their landscape with wildlife, the journey will have been well worth it.
Dale Lewis is the former CEO and now President and Founder of COMACO, directing the company’s work in conservation and agriculture. Lewis has over 20 years of experience as an elephant conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and continues to work with elephants. For more details, see www.itswild.org.