Skip to main content

Community Markets for Conservation

Current initiative


Rhinos in the afternoon

"Rhinos in the afternoon" by Blarvar is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) is a business that incentivises conservation and has created a market where conservation can be profitable. COMACO was designed to reward people for conserving natural resources instead of punishing them for poaching. Individuals are asked to take a Conservation Pledge to abide by a set of community-decided principles in exchange for training, support and the means to secure a substantial and reliable income through farming. This has dramatically reduced incidents of poaching, with food crops produced by villagers turned into quality products which are then sold across Zambia. This approach has led to rising incomes, improved nutrition and increased numbers of wildlife in the Luangwa Valley.


COMACO logo.


North and South Luangwa National Parks and the surrounding game management areas of Zambia’s Luangwa Valley. COMACO works with 179,000 farmers forming 81 cooperatives in 76 chiefdoms in the Luangwa Valley.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected African Elephant Loxodonta africana , Black Rhino Diceros bicornis

Products in trade

Ivory, rhino horn, bushmeat

Overview of the problem

From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, wildlife populations in the Luangwa Valley were dramatically reduced due to poaching. At the peak of the problem, 12,000 elephants were lost in one year and the black rhino went locally extinct. This coincided with villagers in Luangwa struggling to make ends meet with most people living in extreme poverty on a subsistence lifestyle. With poor agricultural practices villagers turned to poaching, with bushmeat and ivory traded and sold for food and money. With little alternative, poaching became the only source of income for people in Luangwa.  

The original programs to address poaching involved law enforcement officials telling people to stop, but they did not provide any alternative sources of income. COMACO however realised that people were poaching because they had no choice.

In addition, charcoal-making has been a past coping strategy for villagers who have few alternative sources of income. This led to the forests of the Luangwa Valley and surrounding watersheds to disappear at an unsustainable rate.

The anti-IWT initiative

The founder of COMACO asked what if, instead of imprisoning poachers, we trained them to farm, and provided a market for their crops. The result was a pilot program in 2003, working with 24 of the most well-known poachers in the Luangwa Valley, who were taught basic practices in soil conservation and drought resistance and supplied with high-quality seeds and basic farming tools. In exchange, they agreed to stop poaching and surrender their guns. Many more poachers began approaching field staff offering to surrender their weapons in return for a similar trade and today COMACO works with over 179,000 farmers.

Nowadays, COMACO invites individuals 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 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. These eco-friendly products, sold to both local and export markets under the brand name “It’s Wild!” range from rice to peanut butter and are cultivated without pesticides or fertilizers. These products create a direct link between the “one-acre” farmer and the best possible local market to reward good farming and land use practices. All revenues are returned to farmers through continued support and programming. As a result, food security levels have dramatically increased across the region, and slowly but surely elephant populations are returning to the Luangwa Valley.

Incentives for farmers' compliance have been incorporated within this structure. Each COMACO farmer signs a Conservation Pledge, which recognises their commitment to abide by a set of conservation principles and are decided by the community. A compliance audit is conducted each year and communities that have performed well are rewarded with a Conservation Dividend. This takes the form of a cash payment to be used for community development projects and further farmer support, providing a motivation to conserve wildlife. In 2018, dividend payments for Eastern Province cooperatives, totalled US$44,400.

Training of farmers is key to the project, with all individuals trained in the leading practices of climate-smart sustainable agriculture and organic farming. Problems such as drought are also addressed by teaching farmers to use reap lines to sow crops and to prepare fields with techniques designed to retain moisture. Furthermore, field staff learned households do better when women are included in training and COMACO now provides seeds to women and holds training sessions in organic gardening.

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.

Inclusion of gender, age and ethnic groups

The recognition of the importance of women has led to increased income through for sale of surplus crops from their gardens and COMACO’s dedicated gender program now runs  village savings and loans groups, teaching small-business skills and supporting women in their entrepreneurial ventures. In total 270 savings and loans groups have been established and 91% of members are women. Energy-efficient cookstoves have also been introduced, fuelled by twigs from the Gliricidia trees and reducing the burden of walking miles to collect firewood. COMACO’s commitment to purchase directly from communities allows women the opportunity to sell crops directly to COMACO and handle all their family’s finances themselves. Today, the women and children of COMACO families are half as likely to be underweight than their non-COMACO neighbours.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Paid in-kind community scouts
Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT
Further detail

COMACO has established Community Conservation Areas (CCAs) in partnership with local chiefs, which to date, cover one million hectares of land over 38 CCAs. The CCAs are patrolled by teams of COMACO-trained community forest guards. Their purpose is to offer alternative livelihood skills to charcoal makers, so that they have the tools and knowledge to begin a small farm of their own.

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Payments for ecosystem services
Further detail

In 2015, COMACO started working with the Word Bank on Zambia’s first large-scale REDD+ carbon crediting scheme. We set in place a monitoring system in nine chiefdoms as a pilot study to determine how much CO2 emissions are saved through avoiding deforestation in the CCAs. Communities are then paid for their conservation efforts through an offsetting scheme. During the first monitoring period nearly $500,000 was paid out to participating chiefdoms and revenue has been invested into community development projects and in launching additional income sources. A further 28 chiefdoms are partnering with COMACO to expand the carbon project.

Decreasing the costs of living with wildlife

Preventive measures to deter wildlife
Further detail

The Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) has collaborated with COMACO to reduce human-wildlife conflict by, for example, teaching methods such as blasting elephants with chilli smoke to protect crops as a way to decrease revenge killings.

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

(Non-wildlife-based) enterprise development/support
Provision of community-level benefits
Further detail

Community members are provided with livelihood alternatives in lieu of wildlife use. The main impetus is that providing alternative livelihoods to poachers will increase food security and household incomes, greatly reducing poaching levels. Individuals are taught to farm and provided with markets to sell their crops. This is called “Poacher Transformation”. Training programs help poachers transition to legal and sustainable jobs, which both support their families and protect the environment.

In addition, over 5,000 farmers have begun keeping bees in the CCAs, which adds a critical off-season income source, and provides a monetary incentive to keep trees standing.

Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardship

Further detail

Once they sign the COMACO Conservation Pledge, poachers are immediately welcomed into a local cooperative and provided access to further support services. This creates a sense of stewardship and these individuals have become some of the most fierce advocates for conservation.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

COMACO established and partners with 80 community cooperatives to provide farmer support services, including training, mentorship and safe crop storage.

To maximise learning and facilitate knowledge sharing, farmers are organising into groups of below 20 members, with each group mentored by a lead farmer selected by their peers.

Has the initiative made a difference?

By 2019, COMACO had engaged with 179,000 farmers, who had become members of 81 cooperatives across 76 chiefdoms and covering nearly 300,000 ha of land.

Within 3 years of piloting COMACO farmers had increased their annual income from $100 to $350 per household. Early income data from 2010 showed that member households had typically transitioned out of a food deficit to a food surplus status thanks to implementing COMACO conservation farming practices. Plus, between 2012-2018 the percentage of food secure families grew from 67% to 84%.

More recent results show that farmers across the region find that fields kept in the COMACO style fare much better than those farmed with standard commercial practices. On average, maize yields have improved by 2-3 times, increasing annual incomes by 450%. Families that previously struggled to feed themselves now have enough to eat and a reliable income source from selling their surplus crops to COMACO at premium market prices.

COMACO now operates 5 plants and manufactures 17 different products under its brand It’s Wild!, becoming the largest private sector employer in one town in the Eastern Province. In 2019 COMACO generated $4.7 million from sales of these products. The brand is recognised for its commitment to quality, conservation and farmer needs and is an important revenue source for conservation. This has been particularly relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic with the shutdown of wildlife tourism. In the 2020 farming season, COMACO paid out over $2.6 million to cooperative farmers.

In addition, the sale of verified carbon credits has generated further income for communities – over 5 years credits sold on behalf of 9 chiefdoms generated nearly $1.5 million. As a result of this success, COMACO expanded the carbon market opportunity to a further 29 chiefdoms.

Wildlife populations have stabilised. Positive results from reduced poaching were 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 2006 and 2008 shows that populations of most species are either stable or increasing.

Results have continued to improve since 2008, with wildlife crime data from 2016-2018 showing a decline in poaching and trafficking of wildlife. Data shows that although elephants have been killed in areas where COMACO works, non-residents were responsible for the vast majority of incidents. Ex-poachers are now volunteering to provide actionable information on poaching incidents to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), which has so far led to 154 reports of wildlife crimes across six districts and subsequent arrests. A key aspect of this is ensuring that informants remain anonymous to avoid any risks of retribution from their community.

In addition, between 2008-2017 the snare encounter rates dropped from 51 to 0.5 across four trophy hunting concessions and by 2019 nearly 1,800 wildlife poachers had surrendered their guns to COMACO. In addition, the number of elephants killed due to human-wildlife conflict reduced from 15 in 1999 to just one in 2017.

What works 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 organisations 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 organised 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.

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 organisation, COMACO has since restructured 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 organisation, demonstrating that its sustained impact was not contingent on external assistance.

Lastly, COMACO recognises that a successful collaboration with DNPW and the Forestry Department have been really key to its achievements.

Factors for success

Supportive, multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared vision

Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Effective and accountable community-based natural resources management institutions

Effective and trusted community leaders

What doesn’t 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. 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.

Organisers, donors and partners

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.

For further information contact (