COMACO works with over 80,000 households in Zambia's Luangwa Valley and Eastern Province. It provides them with agricultural inputs (e.g. seeds, tools), training in conservation farming techniques, commodity transport and processing, and access to wholesale and retail markets under COMACO's "It's Wild" brand. Households achieve improved food security, increased incomes, and are incentivized through conditional price premiums and extensions assistance to conserve soils, water, forests, and wildlife. Habitat conversion, deforestation, and carbon loss is minimized by agroforestry (using coppiced legumes that nitrify soil and store soil carbon), community buy-in to zoning plans, improved cookstoves, and the possibility of REDD payments. Financial sustainability is strived for by structuring the food purchase, transport, processing, and marketing work as a self-sustaining enterprise.
COMACO was launched by the Wildlife Conservation Society ten years ago to address multiple interlinked challenges. Luangwa's people were chronically food-insecure, especially in the few months before the annual harvest, and among the poorest communities in Southern Africa.They lacked access to national and international markets, the ability to transport or process crops, and incentives to increase food production either for themselves or for market. They also lacked access to new and improved farming methods such as conservation farming, no-burn and low-tillage farming, agroforestry. Market conditions incentivized them to choose cotton and tobacco, which are environmentally costly crops that failed to provide them with sufficient food or income. Many households relied on the snaring of wildlife to get them through the year, resulting in year-on-year declines in wildlife across Luangwa's parks and Game Management Areas. These actions also threatened Zambia's premiere tourism and hunting product. Luangwa was losing forest cover, wildlife, soil and water quality, and stored carbon.
COMACO Ltd. was created as a Zambian not-for profit company limited by guarantee. It set out to fill the key gaps in the market chain from farmer methods and well-being through to Zambia's urban retail consumers of rice, peanut butter, honey, and other products. Extension support, transport, processing, packaging, and marketing were all key. Over time, COMACO's "It's Wild" brand became the premiere Zambian brand for these products. Extension work with farmers continued to be supported by donors (Royal Norwegian Embassy, USAID, and others), while the business side of the organization strove for self-sufficiency. COMACO was willing to go to scale, currently earning $4 million annually from product sales, employing 200-300 staff, enlisting greater than 80,000 household members, and purchasing crops last year from more than 25,000 of them.
- The importance of deep local understanding--ecological, economic, cultural--in order to design appropriate interventions to fill key gaps and mitigate drivers of negative change;
- The interdependency of challenges in natural resource management, wildlife conservation, food security, and economic development, and the necessity to address these challenges simultaneously with an interdisciplinary approach;
- The importance of markets and economic incentives for individuals to drive behavior change;
- The importance of a willingness to adapt the model as lessons are learned; and
- The importance of a willingness to go to scale and take risks.
Mean household income has increased threefold. The percentage of food insecure households has been cut by 80 percent. Deforestation and habitat conversion has been halted in key pilot areas. 5/9 wildlife species have increased in abundance.