Stanwell Chirwa is 42 years old with a history of poaching wild animals in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia. He admits to killing 11 elephants, more than 20 buffalo, and kudu and eland. Farming had been his main livelihood, but poor yields and low market prices pushed him into poaching. He was arrested once, but was acquitted in court. On a second occasion, Chirwa was apprehended but managed to escape. He knew his luck would run out someday, and his family would be far worse off if he did not stop poaching.

Persistent hunger and poverty drive many small-scale farmers living near the wildlife-rich Luangwa Valley to poach. And law enforcement alone can’t stop them. It is too expensive and logistically difficult for the government to police the over 1,500 miles of park boundary to keep poachers out of the park. Animal counts across the Luangwa Valley indicate that from the 1970s to the 1990s, elephant numbers fell by more than half. More recent surveys show that wildlife has disappeared from parts of the valley where animals should occur. Researchers estimate that during the late 1990s poaching in the valley claimed the lives of 5,000 animals each year.

One day in 2008, a farm extension officer working for a company called Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) approached Chirwa and explained that COMACO worked with small-scale farmers to improve yields and increase farm prices if practices such as poaching were abandoned. The officer managed to convince Chirwa to surrender his gun and join a COMACO producer group.

Chirwa’s life is very different today. He has since handed over all of his guns and earns a good living selling his soybeans, peanuts, and honey from more than 15 beehives, making far more money than he did as a poacher. He refuses to pass on his hunting skills to his children and has helped identify 12 other hunters in his home area, convincing them to abandon hunting in favor of the opportunities COMACO offers. He is currently advising the local chief on the development of a wildlife conservation area on community land outside the established national parks.

Chirwa’s story represents the core mission of COMACO: using markets to combat poverty and hunger and to promote conservation. As one of 684 former poachers working with the organization, he is part of an exciting new trend in Zambian conservation, with farm plows replacing guns and game meat. Thousands of other farmers who once relied on snaring wildlife to meet food shortfalls have surrendered their snares. Most have achieved self-reliance in food production. For all the farmers who comply with prescribed farming practices, the company offers a premium market price for purchased commodities. Products are sold under the brand name It’s Wild! Today, COMACO is working with over 45,000 small-scale farming families, exceeding $2.4 million in sales.

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Laura Darby/
Snares found in Ugandan forests. Because of COMACO, farmers across Zambia have surrendered over 1,800 firearms and 70,000 snares.

Around the world, a growing number of conservationists are attempting a new approach to conservation: helping people in order to save wildlife. The basic argument is that for conservation projects to succeed, local people need to be on board. But one of the major challenges facing this new field is deciding how best to incentivize conservation at the household level. Previous attempts in Zambia relied on tourism-derived income that was channeled through community institutions. Typically, there was not enough money to have a meaningful impact on individuals in the community, or the money was used in ways that did not effectively address food security and household income. While the conservation community increasingly appreciated that food security and income must be linked with conservation results, it lacked a business model that could effectively drive and sustain these relationships. We think COMACO provides that model.

COMACO started in 2002, the product of over two decades of conservation research conducted by a team of Zambia-based conservationists working for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Our goal was to develop a strategy for protecting wildlife and habitat in the Luangwa Valley, one of Africa’s last great wildlife landscapes. It had been one of the major strongholds of the black rhino, but by the mid-1980s, illegal poaching had driven the species to extinction in the area, despite intense efforts to fight the problem with well-funded law enforcement strategies. During this time, the use of snares to poach wildlife became more common, possibly because it did not attract the attention of wildlife police officers.

It was clear to our team that not only was law enforcement alone unable to stop poaching, but efforts to use wildlife revenues to support community projects, such as the construction of schools and clinics, had generally failed to create real incentives for conservation. Thirty percent of the small farmers in the valley failed to grow enough grain to feed their families. For many, the choice was either poach wildlife to help supplement food and income, or watch their children go hungry and grow up without an education. Though private companies supporting agribusinesses operated in the areas outside Luangwa’s national parks, such companies tended to capitalize on cheap farm labor to grow cash crops, such as cotton and tobacco, and levels of food security did not significantly improve.

Somewhere in this mix of farmer plight, poaching, and uneven access to farm markets, we believed there existed a business approach that could unite farming and conservation. The plan was to run an agro-processing business that would give valley farmers a financial incentive not to degrade their land and resources.

COMACO’s strategy is to offer farmers a higher market value for their farm commodities, if produced in ways that reduce soil loss, prevent unnecessary land clearing, and decrease such coping behaviors as poaching and charcoal making. To sustain these costs, the company manufactures farm-based commodities into processed, value-added food products and markets them as healthy, organic, and fair-priced.

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It’s Wild products are sold in supermarkets across Zambia. In 2010, COMACO converted over 6,000 tons of raw commodities produced by valley farmers into value-added products, exceeding $2.4 million in sales.

Perhaps we were naïve to think that COMACO could reverse the downward trends of land degradation and wildlife loss, especially where more established, well-funded development efforts had failed, but WCS’ research suggested that a business strategy targeting poor farmers was the right approach. The challenge was to convince potential investors. The first injection of operating capital came from the UN World Food Programme, in the form of free maize. COMACO offered farmers free maize to meet their food shortfalls, and, in exchange, the farmers adopted better farming practices and grew a greater variety of food crops. COMACO then promised to buy their new surplus at above average market prices. Local government authorities approved of COMACO’s approach and offered the fledgling company abandoned buildings for storing and processing commodities. These became the company’s first processing centers, later known as conservation trading centers, or CTCs. A few well-wishers helped COMACO buy some old trucks and simple food processing equipment, making the first CTC operational. Finally, the local communities partnering with COMACO provided what little infrastructure they could to help the company bulk surplus crops for dispatch to the CTC.

Results have shown that farmer behaviors toward conservation can change dramatically when guided by market incentives and supported with the right training and inputs. With the help of a network of local staff and lead farmers, who provide year-round training and support to COMACO member farmers, tens of thousands of small-scale farmers have significantly improved their yields by adopting such new skills as making compost fertilizer, using a near-zero tillage method that reduces drought risk, growing new food crop varieties, and applying cover crops and agroforestry species to increase soil nutrients. This farmer extension approach is cost-effective and helps COMACO remain financially sustainable.

The COMACO model has attracted the interest of key donors, namely the Royal Norwegian Embassy, General Mills food processing company, Lundin Foundation, and Mulago Foundation. With their help, COMACO has been able to grow from a single CTC to six in seven years, serving the market needs of over 45,000 families through 73 community trading depots where farmers bring their commodities to sell. Its operations now cover much of the Luangwa Valley ecosystem, extending over 25,000 square kilometers. Total commodity production has more than doubled over the past two years, and the 2010 harvest surplus of rice, maize, cooking beans, groundnuts, soybeans, and honey purchased by COMACO exceeded 6,000 tons.

Whether converted into value-added, processed products or simply sold as raw commodities in the open commodity market, crops that once had little value for valley farmers are now known and purchased by urban consumers throughout Zambia under the brand name It’s Wild! Consumer demand for It’s Wild! products has grown by over 100 percent annually in terms of annual sales since 2007, reaching $2.4 million in 2010. Commodity prices, in turn, have risen over twofold for most commodities since COMACO began, and farm families who grow the raw commodities for It’s Wild! products earn about 40 percent of the gross sales value of the product. Prior to COMACO, in 2000, valley farming families earned, on average, $80 per household per year. By 2009 household incomes for participating families had more than doubled. In addition, actual food production had increased by 37 percent, representing an added value of about $150 to household wealth.


William Banda, a wildlife conservation officer with COMACO, speaks to a group of former poachers. The men are taking a six-week course that teaches skills, such as carpentry and beekeeping, that they can use to earn a living without poaching.

Maureen Zimba tells it best. She started selling rice to COMACO three years ago and earns over $500 annually. “I do not have to worry about my son getting into trouble poaching or my daughter falling into prostitution. They are both safe in school because my husband and I can now pay their school fees.”

Farmers across Zambia have surrendered over 1,800 firearms and 70,000 snares, which they no longer need to make a living. To discourage cheating, COMACO makes it clear to communities that it will not buy their goods if they continue to poach. COMACO also offers a double premium if a community can encourage all of its known poachers to surrender their guns. These hunters are then invited to participate in a six-week training session with COMACO in which they develop skills to help them earn a better living. In these training sessions, former poachers learn carpentry, beekeeping, metalworking, and poultry husbandry. When they return home, they identify two to three other hunters who they will lead in their new craft. The group receives startup investments, tools, and other inputs from COMACO. It costs conventional law enforcement approximately $800 to arrest and put a single poacher behind prison bars. It costs COMACO only $200 to help a poacher find an alternative livelihood. Largely due to these efforts, the valley appears poised for a wildlife recovery and a real chance to expand its wildlife-based tourism. According to a long-term wildlife monitoring study of COMACO areas, over 30 percent of the species surveyed, including elephants, show statistical increases in population trends while all but two, eland and buffalo, show stable population numbers.

When COMACO began almost a decade ago, many valley farmers experienced months of hunger and despair. Today, valley farmers, with COMACO, grow a surplus of food crops like rice, maize, groundnuts, and soybeans. These farmers, many of whom once relied on World Food Programme food aid, now sell their surplus, which COMACO turns into value-added products. One such product is HEPS, or high energy protein supplement, made from maize and soybeans, which COMACO now sells to the World Food Programme to supplement nutrition for families affected by disease and poverty. Much has changed in just eight years.

By attacking the root causes of poaching in Zambia, COMACO has proven that conservation is not just good for wildlife; it can be good for people and good for business. And the farmers in Luangwa Valley have proven that, with the right market incentives, they can be good stewards of the land.


Dale Lewis

Dale Lewis joined the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1979 to study the effects of human activities on elephants in Luangwa Valley, Zambia. Since that time, Lewis has dedicated much of his life to working...

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