Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO): promoting rural livelihoods around a business partnership to achieve conservation

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Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO): promoting rural livelihoods around a business partnership to achieve conservation

Project Summary
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COMACO is a Zambian-registered non-profit company that forms business partnerships with rural communities living in areas of important biodiversity. In the spirit of conservation, COMACO links villagers with urban consumers through a value chain of environmentally smart products that drives solutions for land management, food security, and improved rural incomes.
About You
Project Street Address

26 Joseph Mwilwa Road, Rhodes Park

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Your idea
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What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1-5 years

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?


Describe your idea in fewer than 50 words.

COMACO is a Zambian-registered non-profit company that forms business partnerships with rural communities living in areas of important biodiversity. In the spirit of conservation, COMACO links villagers with urban consumers through a value chain of environmentally smart products that drives solutions for land management, food security, and improved rural incomes.

What makes your idea unique?

In the heart of eastern Zambia, where herds of elephant and antelope live alongside communities of farmers and hunters, residents have initiated a revolutionary change in lifestyle. They have collectively surrendered hundreds of guns and hunting snares in exchange for improved opportunities in food security and markets. To fight against the grinding poverty, illegal hunting, and environmental degradation that once dominated this region, communities have discovered a new kind of ammunition: conservation and sustainability.

COMACO helps local communities take responsibility for their natural resources via a successful business model that benefits them. Rather than relying on the old solutions of donor-assisted aid programs, COMACO provides a clear path for overcoming rural poverty, while motivating farmers to adopt more productive and sustainable practices (i.e., composting, crop rotation, and human-elephant conflict resolutions) that help support family needs and improve land use.

The model includes a market structure that assures that what is grown in the field (or produced in the forest) and what gets sold at the store pay best value. It is a business model that creates an opportunity for every consumer to be part of a national conservation effort by simply buying COMACO products. This process provides premium prices for the producers, motivating them to comply with best conservation practices and abandon practices that diminish their natural resources.

What is your area of work? (Please check as many as apply.)

Education , Education reform , Development & Prosperity , Adult education , Business , Communications , Community development , Conscious consumerism , Economic development , Employment , Energy , Fair trade , Financial services and markets , Food security , Hunger , Income generation , Infrastructure , Labor , Marketing , Mentorship , Poverty alleviation , Rural development , Social Enterprise , Sustainable development , Technology , Trade , Transportation , Travel and tourism , Environment & Sustainability , Biodiversity , Climate change , Conservation , Energy conservation , Green business , Green consumerism , Population , Renewable energy , Rural , Sustainable agriculture , Sustainable design , Waste and recycling , Wildlife conservation , Health & Fitness , Food , Food security , Hunger , Indigenous cultures .

What impact have you had?

After five years, COMACO now operates as a stand-alone, limited-by-guarantee company with three regional trading centers and four more in development, which will nearly cover Zambia’s entire Luangwa Valley ecosystem. In four years, product sales have grown to K2,058,064,800 ($480,000) for 2008 purchased commodities.

Tangible program results include:
• Purchased commodities equaled 982 tons in 2008 (up 53% from 2007).
• 30,424 participating households, and ten registered producer group cooperatives (with 13 more soon to be registered).
• 138 retail and wholesale clients in nationwide urban centers.
• 417% sales growth from 2007 to 2008.
• 21 different products.
• More than 50,000 poaching snares and over 1700 illegal firearms surrendered.

Collaborative research with independent partners confirms the following impacts:
• Positive trends in wildlife numbers for key species monitored.
• Annual household income showed females increased their income by a factor of K3.26 (US$4.52) and males by a factor of K2.3 (US$3.19) from pre-COMACO levels.
• Significant diversification of food crops, with a 15-20% increase in maize yield.
• By 2011, the first three processing centers will be self-financing.

As COMACO continues to transform farming and land-use practices, broader impacts over time may also reduce down river effects of floods and soil loss for more than 500,000 people, and reduce carbon emissions attributable to fires, soil mismanagement, and tree loss.

Describe the primary problem(s) that your project is addressing.

The project addressed the need to bring urban consumers and rural producers together as a force for conservation—to replace an urban-rural relationship that leaves a net drain of natural resources, including carbon assets, across rural landscapes. Depletion of rural natural resources underlies today’s crises of global warming and biodiversity loss, two key threats affecting the very future of the planet.

Often a dearth of markets causes desperately poor villagers to destroy their natural resources in order to cope with daily needs. Markets have a poor history of responding to such problems, and the devastating environmental consequences are only deferred to a later date. Without alternatives that address the needs of rural communities, politicians are reluctant to enact the reforms required to help balance environmental protection with economic opportunities for the rural populace.

Describe the steps that your organization is taking to make your project successful.

COMACO uses market-driven incentives to improve farming and land-use practices designed to strengthen household food and income security and improve ecosystem management. It invests in poor, food-insecure and unskilled families to become net food producers and reliable suppliers of commodities produced organically with minimum impact on the environment. From these commodities, COMACO produces value-added products to sustain incentives paid to families for complying with improved conservation practices. To protect farmers from climatic variability and market perturbations, COMACO promotes crop diversification, and training programs are provided to enhance local capacity. A head office is responsible for marketing, accounting, management controls and logistics, sales and distribution, and supporting the regional centers.

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Success in Year 1:

Success in year one will require the following: 1) over 2,500 tons of commodities purchased converted in total sales of $1,200,000; 2) value-added processing of new products (energy bar, rice crispie) from by-products of existing products; 3) not less than 10,000 farmers food secure with surplus commodities sold to COMACO; 4) recruitment of a full-time marketing manager; 4) four regional trading centers fully functioning on the eastern side of Luangwa Valley; and, 5) It’s Wild! brand selling in wholesale and retail stores throughout Zambia.

Success in Year 2:

Success by the end of year two:1) total product sales exceed $1,500,000; 2) a fully operational food safety lab with qualified staff established at Lundazi trading center; 3) increased storage facilities in Lusaka to support growing demand for products throughout Zambia and into the Democratic Republic of Zambia; 4) not less than 15,000 food secure farmers selling surplus commodities to COMACO; 5) 25,000 farmers complying with sustainable agriculture guidelines; and, 6) more than 1,000 charcoal makers and 700 former wildlife poachers earning livelihoods from COMACO-supported markets.

Success in Year 3:

Success by end of year three will require: 1) total product sales exceeding $1,700,000; 2) five fully functioning trading centers operating across the entire Luangwa Valley ecosystem; 3) 20,000 food secure farmers selling surplus commodities to COMACO; 4) 30% of sales or more derived from commodity market sales relative to value-added processed products; 5) three of six trading centers operating in the black and supporting 30% of the overhead costs of the head office; and, 6) more than 30,000 farmers complying with sustainable farming practices without incidence of wildlife poaching.

Do you have a business plan or strategic plan? (yes/no)

A 5-year business plan was developed in 2007. It is revised annually through a performance audit.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization? STEP 1:

Expansion – In 2009, the program will open a third regional trading center and by 2011, there will be six trading centers covering more than 80% of the Luangwa Valley, which is roughly the size of Malawi. This will involve an increase in producer group membership with more focus on diversifying forest-based products, as well as farm-based processed products. To guide the process, an operational manual is being developed to describe COMACO’s management approach and value-chain strategies and methods, with insights and lessons learned from its own staff and collaborating associates.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization? STEP 2:

Creation of a centralized hub – A goal is to develop and sustain a centralized hub for product storage and “back-room” technical skills provided by the Lusaka-based head office. This hub is needed to oversee COMACO’s business management, including commercial accounting, sales and distribution, product development, marketing, procurements and internal audits. The program will also institute annual performance audits of senior staff and on-going training for head office staff in using real-time information to monitor, plan and execute smarter business decisions.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization? STEP 3:

Product development – In an effort to double the high-valued, organic food products over the next three years, COMACO is being advised by a professionally qualified food technologist trained by General Mills and the University of Zambia to oversee product development and product safety standards. Technical assistance from collaborating partners is also helping to reduce waste from by-products by using them for potential value-added products, such as animal feed from cracked rice, rice bran, etc. or organic wax for sales to European pharmaceutical companies.

Describe the expected results of these actions.

Producer group members will increase from 30,000 to over 50,000, with a net annual income of $600 for not less than 60% of members and broad-based food security for communities participating in COMACO. This represents a doubling in annual income and a 500% increase compared to income levels prior to COMACO’s start in 2003. Through these social and economic impacts, conservation results will include increased wildlife numbers, improved wildlife range and habitat, and reduced rate of tree loss in the Luangwa Valley watershed. Changes in wildlife numbers and range will be monitored by aerial census surveys. As a proxy for improved habitat, range changes should correlate with expanded habitat area. Household-level impact on tree cutting as a function of improved farming practices will also be measured and can be extrapolated to assess tree loss rates avoided or minimized by COMACO.

What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

Dr. Dale Lewis has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Zambia for more than twenty years. He became haunted by the failure of rural development to effectively protect either people’s livelihoods or their natural resources, since most development models reflect a limited understanding of the synergies between agriculture, markets, and conservation. About ten years ago, he recalls a painful reality sinking in during his inspection of several village granaries. There was simply not enough grain to meet food requirements until the next harvest. For many in the villages he knew so well (all located near a national park), families would surely go hungry, with few other options than to poach wildlife to meet basic needs. This triggered a number of surveys that showed the pervasiveness of chronic hunger contributing to wildlife losses in the thousands. It was a startling revelation. In addition to protecting wild animals, Dr. Lewis realized that conservationists had a responsibility to helping local communities benefit from their natural resources if they were expected to live in harmony with wildlife. Based on this, he forged the path to create COMACO.

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

As COMACO’s Chief Executive Officer and a highly respected conservation scientist, Dr. Dale Lewis provides overall leadership to the project. He has had a 30-year involvement in developing conservation and market-based solutions in Zambia and spends 100 percent of his time helping to run COMACO. He holds a Ph.D. in zoology and population genetics and has worked for WCS for 25 years, currently as a Senior Conservationist.

Having invested much of his life perfecting conventional conservation strategies, particularly for protecting elephants, Dr. Lewis broke rank five years ago, gambling his career on this new approach. Farmers, not wildlife, needed to become the lens through which a solution could be found—and his approach had to be on a scale far exceeding anything he had tried before. He was not deterred by the fact that others (with far more financing and extensive development credentials) had failed. Although often well funded, development projects in the area were short-lived, while the private sector persisted. What was missing was a business model that could forge a link between conservation and farming, which, thanks to Dr. Lewis, is exactly what this project now provides.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

A colleague directed us to the Ashoka website to compete in the Changemakers program to recognize COMACO’s contribution to rural development and agriculture.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

One of COMACO’s biggest challenges is the management of multiple trading centers as a single business operation over a large geographic area to sustain a growing number of producers. To meet these challenges, COMACO has begun technical skills training for head office staff to oversee business management, though capacity to do this has proven arduous and time consuming. While this is not unexpected given COMACO’s rapid growth, failing to meet this challenge will mean increased risks of financial losses from potential theft or waste, or from missed opportunities to expand product development and increase market shares.

Another challenge is the technological requirements for meeting the highest standards of food safety for its entire food product line. COMACO has earned an exceptionally good name in Zambia for its healthy, organic food products and any loss of product quality that might result as COMACO scales up operations could have very negative effects on sales and company viability. Food safety is key to COMACO’s success as the company grows in size and products.

Finally, another barrier to expanding to a national franchise network could be the lack of adequate infrastructure in Lusaka to support a centralized hub with bulk storage space and offices for key personnel to promote multi-channel sales throughout Zambia and the sub-region. With such a hub, COMACO could more optimally plan, market, and distribute the full range of It’s Wild! products, while maintaining professional accounting and quality oversight.

Financing source
If yes, provide organization name.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

How long has this organization been operating? (i.e. less than a year; 1-5 years; more than 5 years)

More than 100 years.

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?

WCS has a Board of Directors and COMACO has an Advisory Board.

Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with NGOs? (yes/no)


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with businesses? (yes/no)


The Story
Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with government? (yes/no)


Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

COMACO collaborates with a number of government, private sector and institutional partners. COMACO has achieved a strong collaborative relationship with General Mills that has offered significant technical expertise to promote food safety, improved management of inventory, and product development. COMACO also collaborates with universities, including Cornell, Berkeley and University of Zambia, for peer review of results and academic insights in business models and rural development technologies. Additionally, COMACO has positive, collaborative relationships with World Food Program, Care International and FAO to promote various synergies. Finally, local government authorities and local community leaders are a vital target for partnerships and on-going relationship building to enhance the model’s impact on both livelihoods and conservation results.

How many people will your project serve annually?

30,000 to 40,000

What is your organization's business classification?

Non-profit/NGO/citizen sector organization

What is the total number of employees and total number of volunteers at your organization?

WCS 1,440 staff/800 volunt.; COMACO 290 employees

Have you received funding from any of the following groups? (Please check as many as apply.)

United Nations Development Progam (UNDP) , USAID (United States) , World Food Programme (WFP) .