Community Markets for Conservation

Community Markets for Conservation

Project background

Species of focus: 



North and South Luangwa National Parks and the surrounding game management areas of Zambia’s Luangwa Valley.

Summary description: 

Surveys have shown that when households in the Lwanga Valley are food insecure, more than half of farmers turn to poaching, setting wire snares for wildlife. A small percentage of residents are “professional poachers,” using locally made guns to hunt a variety of species. Although currently less common, elephants and rhinos have often been targeted as a commercial activity by organized groups from outside the valley.

Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) invites farmers through forming producer groups to adopt a package of eco-agriculture and organic farming techniques that both reduce the environmental impact of farming and drastically improve agricultural yields. In return, COMACO purchases farmers' commodities through a network of depots (57 in total) and collection centres, alleviating transport costs and guaranteeing a premium for organic produce. Farm surpluses purchased by COMACO are manufactured and sold as value-added processed products, or sold to high-paying commodity markets. COMACO generates ecofriendly products (under the brand name “It’s Wild!”) ranging from rice to peanut butter, cultivated without pesticides or fertilizers. These products are catered to ecotourism visitors to South Luangwa National Park, creating a direct link between the “one-acre” farmer and the best possible local market to reward good farming and land use practices.

Incentives for farmers' compliance have been incorporated within this structure, initially in the form of a price premium for COMACO-certified farmers who sell to the organisation. This system has been changed, however, to a dividend that is paid to all producer groups that are certified as compliant, whether they sell to COMACO or another buyer.

COMACO operates as a legally registered limited-by-guarantee company and functions both as an agro-food processing company and as a commodity trader. By providing this dual role, COMACO has been able to scale up its market reach to a large enough number of farmers living in Luangwa Valley to have a landscape-scale impact on both conservation and livelihoods. The current number of registered farmer members in the COMACO program is 32,454. The current trend suggests an annual member growth rate of about 20 %.

COMACO relies heavily on its relations with communities and traditional rulers in the various chiefdoms of the Luangwa Valley. When entering an area, extension officers seek assistance from the village headman to identify those households in greatest need, as well as those most responsible for resource degradation, such as professional poachers or charcoal makers. These assessments are verified via survey, and then selected households are encouraged to participate in COMACO through forming or joining a producer group. The COMACO model’s goal is that, within a maximum of four years, participants will be able to support household food needs independently through increased yields from conservation farming and improved income through market access.

In extreme cases, COMACO's responses to non-compliance can result in trade sanctions on communities who renege on their commitment to abandon poaching or snaring. Trade sanctions include denying dividend payments or not bringing markets and extension services to their area.

COMACO has also provided training for poachers in alternative careers (e.g. carpentry, bee keeping and village scouts), referred to as the poacher transformation project, which began as a pilot project in 2001 before the wider COMACO model was introduced. This flagship programme for the organisation has continued in the Luangwa Valley with more than 760 individuals having completed the program to date. The program also involves snare removal.

The Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) routinely meets with COMACO staff to discuss their joint conservation initiatives. One area of collaboration is to reduce human-wildlife conflict by, for example, teaching methods such as blasting elephants with chilli smoke to protect crops. ZAWA has also attached officers to COMACO to help facilitate the poacher transformation program.

Land management type: 

State managed protected area
State managed land outside protected area

Product(s) in trade: 

Types of poachers: 

Individuals from local community
Individuals from outside
Gangs from outside
Project implementation

Is the project implemented by an external party? 


Implementing organisation: 

Wildlife Conservation Society

Name of funding organisation(s): 

Funders have included Wildlife Conservation Society, General Mills, World Food Programme, Zambia Wildlife Authority, Zambia’s National Farmers Union, Government of the Republic of Zambia, Cornell University, CARE International, UNDP Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme recipient (2008), UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, Catholic Relief Services, Royal Norwegian Embassy.

Community organisation(s) involved: 

More than 40,000 rural households in the Lwanga Valley are the beneficiaries of COMACO.

Was the project established specifically to engage communities in combatting IWT? 

Partly (one of a number of objectives)

Year the IWT project or component started 


Project status is currently: 

Community engagement

Approach taken to community engagement and its rationale: 

Community members are provided with livelihood alternatives in lieu of wildlife use
Human wildlife conflict addressed as a way to decrease incentive for revenge killing of wildlife


A dividend is disbursed to COMACO members - this can include cash.

A pre-COMACO household livelihood baseline survey for Luangwa Valley residents in 2000 revealed annual household incomes averaged US$ 79 and depending on rainfall, as many as 60 % of valley residents were not food secure, forcing many to rely on wildlife snaring to help meet their food shortfalls. Household income data from 2010 shows that member households have typically transitioned out of a food deficit to a food surplus status thanks to implementing COMACO conservation farming practices and now earn an annual average of approximately US$ 220. The combined value of income and increased household food production represents a net annual household income of approximately U$ 300 for the average COMACO-certified farming household. The 10,585 farmers who sold to COMACO in 2010 represented about 30 % of total COMACO members, however, suggesting that the remaining 70 % are still in the process of moving from a net food deficit into a surplus.

In 2010, farmers received approximately 3.74 billion Zambian Kwacha (ZMK), or ZMK 387,530 per individual (USD 86). This represented around 40 % of a family’s total annual income; the actual percentage could be considerably higher when considering both husbands and wives for individual households can sell their crops separately to COMACO. Incomes from selling commodities are also boosted as COMACO buys farm produce through collection depots. Through its 57 depots and various transport assets, COMACO is in most cases is able to collect farmer commodities as a service, which saves farmers from having to bear these costs. In some rural areas where COMACO does not operate, these transport costs can represent as much as 20 % of the value of the commodity.

In 2010, farmers could make ZMK 1,040,000 from growing rice on a plot measuring 50m by 50m, representing a 300 % increase from pre-COMACO prices. The same plot size would earn farmers ZMK 684,000 for groundnuts, a 270 % increase, ZMK 324,000 from soy beans, a 180 % increase; and ZMK 890,000 from beans, or a 200 % increase.


The COMACO dividend can also take the form of seed inputs and farm implements. In 2010, the dividend included one or more of the following, depending on local conditions: treadle pumps, beehives, and hoes.

Seed availability and seed diversification are major constraints to achieving food security for small-scale farmers living in remote areas of Luangwa Valley. COMACO has worked to overcome these challenges. The organisation contributes an annual 150-250 tons of seeds to its farmers.

Complementing this support is a community-based farmer extension system that builds on the local support of over 639 lead farmers and 57 certificate or diploma-holding salaried extension staff members who live locally. With the use of 225 demonstration training sites, on-going field days, and visual aids, farmers are taught different techniques for conservation farming.

The community engagement project is: 

Stand alone initiative

What “rules of engagement” for working with communities does the case study address? 

Acknowledge and address costs to communities from living alongside wildlife
Recognise and strengthen the legitimacy of local communities as critical partners

What has been the impact on poaching/IWT? 

Don’t know/Case study/project has not assessed impact on poaching

What has been the impact on wildlife populations? 

Wildlife populations have stabilised

Further detail about the impact on poaching: 

Positive results from reduced poaching have been observed through aerial surveys undertaken by COMACO staff in conjunction with outside researchers between 1999 and 2008. Comparing data from “pre-COMACO” aerial wildlife surveys in 1999 and 2002 against results from surveys performed on the same flight transects in 2006 and 2008 shows that populations of most species are either stable or increasing. The degree of the positive change suggests that reduced hunting pressure likely contributed to redistribution of animals back into game management areas (Lewis et al 2010). To date, more than 61,000 wire snares and 1,467 guns have been turned in by participants. Independent evidence from ZAWA’s patrol reports shows that despite seasonal and yearly fluctuations, an overall downward trend in snares recovered from national parks and game management areas has been observed over time. These findings suggest that COMACO’s snare removal provided benefits to wildlife in the areas in which its participants live (Lewis et al 2010).
Lessons learned about engaging communities

What worked about the community engagement approach and why? 

As membership of COMACO has grown, producer group cooperatives have engaged a wider spectrum of Luangwa Valley communities. In particular, traditional village rulers and Community Resource Boards have been involved in supporting COMACO’s work. The latter are community-based organizations overseen by the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to promote participatory management of natural resources by communities. This engagement of important community institutions has underpinned sustainable resource decisions taken in many cases. For instance, community leaders have taken an active role in convincing poachers to lay down their guns. In recent years, chiefs and community leaders have assisted with the identification and persuasion of hundreds of poachers to undertake training provided by COMACO.

Village institutions have also acted as mediators in cases of widespread poaching. Chief Tembwe’s area was threatened with a COMACO trade sanction due to high levels of poaching reported by the Zambia Wildlife Authority. A COMACO representative travelled to meet with local leaders to explain COMACO’s policy; these leaders were able to convene public meetings and poaching levels were subsequently dramatically reduced.

An important strategy employed by COMACO in its work has been its producer group model. All COMACO-registered farmers are required to be members of a producer group. These groups are subsequently organized into producer group cooperatives, providing environments for collaborative learning and training. As well as being vehicles for sustainable agricultural extension, producer groups have been used to provide information on health to parenting advice. Meetings of producer groups act as peer forums in which members discuss topics such as family planning, hygiene, and reproductive health alongside sustainable farming practices. These discussions are facilitated by the use of ‘Better Life Books’, consisting of 21 loose pages of illustrated lessons covering a range of livelihood skills, including farming practices, fertilizer-making, poultry rearing, and bee-keeping, as well as hygiene and family health topics.

The key strength of the COMACO model is its highly adaptive nature. Beginning on a small scale in 2003 with the development of a producer group organization, COMACO is currently restructuring into a stand-alone business entity and continues to evolve through an iterative, adaptive process. For example, food relief from the World Food Program initially assisted the transition of food-insecure households to the use of conservation farming. Over time this temporary food aid was phased out, initially resulting in decreased food security for some participating households. Food aid is no longer associated with the model, yet numbers of participating households have continued to rise steadily as COMACO has expanded its farmer training and organization, demonstrating that its sustained impact was not contingent on external assistance.

What did not work and why? 

Incentives for farmers' compliance were initially provided through higher prices for certified farmers versus non-certified farmers. Using this pricing structure as the sole mechanism to maintain compliance was found to be inadequate, however. During its early growth, COMACO often lacked the capital needed for purchases at the higher prices at the precise time when the farmers needed to sell, resulting in farmer frustration, reduced compliance, and increased sales to alternative buyers. In 2010, in place of this system, COMACO introduced a conservation dividend mechanism to reward all producer groups that are certified as compliant, whether they sell to COMACO or another buyer. This dividend is not a subsidy but rather a true dividend: an incentive returned to members that varies from year to year. Payment takes the form of cash, seed inputs, and farm implements. The dividend mechanism is designed to promote conservation farming compliance and the use of new technologies and, to a lesser extent, to smooth household food availability. From a business perspective, the dividend system allows the incentive to be given after the production and sale of value-added products as opposed to at the time of purchase of raw materials. The approach represents a major adaptive management adjustment.

Infrastructure deficiencies remain a challenge to continued long-term business expansion as well as product diversification, however. An example of these limitations comes from a conservation trading centre established at Feira. Although this was desirable from a conservation perspective because of its proximity to the Lower Zambezi National Park, the centre shifted to another facility at Nyimba in 2009 due to high transportation costs, restricted varieties of local commodities, and lack of reliable water and electricity. Nyimba has more reliable utilities and direct access to the major paved highway running to Lusaka, although it required substantial investment in 2008–2009 to accommodate the new functions and scale.

Further comments or additional information about community engagement 

A major challenge for COMACO is to maintain small-scale farming in game management areas, but reduce the risk of small-scale farmers becoming larger commercial farms, which would pose a greater threat to wildlife habitats. As COMACO continues to target and reward small-scale farmers with best practices and markets, ZAWA could also reward the same farmers with incentives to maintain farm plots within a limited maximum size to receive a share of wildlife revenues. This would give farmers two income streams, from farming and wildlife, both tied to conservation.

COMACO aims to become financially self-supporting. The tactical plan to achieve this has been to increase the scale of operations to meet required thresholds for contracts of value-added products and commodities in larger urban and export markets. Data for conservation trading centres that are generating value-added products show progress toward a break-even point, with the percentage of sales revenue to total operating expenses increasing from 31 % to 79 % between 2008 and 2010. These data include administrative costs of expenses of the distribution centres.

External support has helped in improving the quality of products. Additional research has decreased breakage of rice and improved packaging of peanut butter to improve quality and shelf life. These changes have enhanced COMACO’s ability to negotiate contracts with urban supermarkets. Retail sales are now complemented by sales on the Zambian Agriculture Commodities Exchange. Partner organisations have also helped to facilitate the development of additional products. Training of a food technologist and additional extrusion equipment donated by General Mills has enabled COMACO to process goods such as food bars and poultry feeds.

Case study information is up to date as of: 

Bibliographic information

Main source(s) of information: 

Published documentation


Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), Zambia. (English Version)



Year of publication: 


Journal/Book/Series details: 

Equator Initiative Case Study Series


United Nations Development Programme

Place published: 

New York, US.


Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), Zambia. (Portugese Version)



Year of publication: 


Journal/Book/Series details: 

Equator Initiative Case Study Series.


United Nations Development Programme

Place published: 

New York, US

Additional source(s) of information: 


Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) links biodiversity conservation with sustainable improvements in livelihoods and food production


Lewis D et al

Year of publication: 


Journal/Book/Series details: 

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)
Case study entry information

This case study entry compiled by: 

Francesca Booker

Date of case study entry: 

Tuesday, 20 September, 2016