Comaco: Turning Poachers into Farmers

Conservation often fails because farmers can’t make a decent living from farming; farming often fails because farmers don’t have the training, inputs, and access to markets that they need.


Wildlife conservation where farming and conservation collide

The idea

Turn poachers into farmers: provide training and access to markets in exchange for “conservation farming" - no poaching, good soil management, no burning, and no clearing..

How it works

  • Mobilize and train groups to farm better
  • Buy cash crops from farmers and process them into value-added products
  • Reward “conservation farmers” with premium prices for their crops
  • Sell value-added food products under It’s Wild! brand
  • Use revenues from product sales to offset the costs of field work

How it will go to scale

Through the power of the market and earned revenues, COMACO’s impact is expected to reach hundreds of thousands of farmers across Zambia. Their model could also be adapted to other conservation settings where smallholder farmers are far from markets.

Progress so far

Scale up: In 2013 COMACO sold $2.0 million of It’s Wild! products, generating $1.0 million in new income for 11,000 Zambian farmers. Farm extension services reach 67,000 farmers across 77,000 km2.

Visit the website

Capacity To Deliver

As an elephant biologist turned conservationist, Dale Lewis battled wildlife poaching in remote Zambia for years without much success. After years of seeing little progress, he realized that a big part of the problem was caused when people poached because they couldn’t produce enough food or earn enough money from their small plots of land: crop yields were low and there were no markets for their crops. Dale started COMACO to make farming productive enough to take pressure off of wildlife. COMACO trains farmers in “conservation farming” – good soil management combined with no poaching, burning, or clearing – buys their produce, creates value added products, and pays farmers a “conservation dividend” from sales revenues. COMACO’S It’s Wild! line of food products is selling briskly in Zambia, and the COMACO approach gives a triple bang for the buck: thousands of farmers with food security and bigger incomes. The situation Dale found in Zambia is common throughout the developing world and this model provides a potential solution wherever farming and conservation collide.

A compelling problem

Conservation often fails because farmers can’t make a decent living from farming; farming often fails because farmers don’t have the training, inputs, and access to markets that they need.

A scalable solution

Real impact: Wildlife surveys over an area of 450,000 hectares indicate that key species are stabilized or growing, and 30,000 hectares are being farmed using conservation techniques. The cash income boost for farmers who sold cash crops to COMACO was an average of $110 and the prevalence of food security among all COMACO farmers was 74%.

Cost-effective: COMACO's impact results from a donor investment of approximately $12 million over 6 years.

Lasting behavior: Both conservation and farming behavior are driven by profits and sustained income increases.

Easy replication: The conservation and agricultural components are simple and systematic and both are scaling up. Integrating these components with the It’s Wild! brand is more complex, but follows a path similar to other food product businesses.

A viable route to scale: COMACO’s growth within Zambia is robust; it remains to be seen whether the model can be replicated in new countries. Initial planning is underway for an affiliate program around Mt. Elgon National Park in Uganda and Kenya with Norwegian support.

Capacity to deliver

Dale Lewis has lived and worked in the Luangwa Valley for over 20 years. He grew COMACO from the ground up, and has developed an extraordinary team of local Zambians in the field. Dale has built a business team to support the scale-up of the organization and developed partnerships with General Mills and the Haas School of Business to guide food processing and business planning. The pace of delivery has accelerated rapidly for the last 3 years, and is on track to double impact in the next two years.

updated November 2013