COMACO is a not-for-profit built to incentivise conservation, improve social security and turn the tide on poaching and deforestation. We speak with Dale Lewis, the man behind its philanthropic model.
For the Love of Nature
The wet faces of relaxed hippos glisten in the morning sun along the waterways of the Luangwa River.
Elephants wade through the nearby marshland, playfully jetting water from their trunks as they pause to bathe.
A leopard lies sprawled across a thick branch of the riverbank’s dense forest, enjoying a snooze after a hard-earned hunt.
A gunshot is heard, the serenity spoiled.
During the 1980s, poaching tragically became a necessity for many locals living in eastern Zambia. Poor farming practices had led to exhausted soils and dwindling crop yields, resulting in food shortages and rising poverty.
Thousands of animals were killed and their habitats decimated as communities went in search of food and new fertile farmland in order to survive.
The situation had reached a crisis point as poverty and conservation became embroiled in a constant, worsening conflict.
“I had completed some of my PhD work in Zambia,” recalls Dale Lewis, CEO and Founder of Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO). “I was based in a beautiful, wild, natural area, but witnessed some horrific scenes of elephant poaching.
“Beyond law enforcement tactics, it didn’t seem like anyone was trying to find a viable solution to the problem.
I couldn’t put that out of my mind and decided to return to the country with a limited research budget to see what I could do.
“I ate the local food and lived in the local villages alongside local people – I was the barefoot biologist that rode a bicycle.
And it was that daily association with these communities that helped me to realise that their problems were intertwined with those of the elephants.
“People did not know how to farm productively or sustainably because nobody had taught them, and hunger became their motivation to go out and hunt.
When I conducted a survey and saw how widespread this was, I decided to hang up my binoculars and start off in a new direction with COMACO.”
Turning the tide
In the 15 years since Lewis’s epiphany, COMACO has become a crucial player helping to turn the tide on poaching and deforestation.
A not-for-profit enterprise incentivising sustainable farming and conservation, it has educated 200,000 smallholders and potential poachers in sustainable crop cultivation practices, helping them to dramatically increase crop yields.
Through these learnings, eastern Zambian communities are now able to grow enough nutrient-rich food crops to not only feed their families but also sell any surplus to COMACO for a fair price on the premise that they act as stewards of the land. In doing so, the organisation has rotated the once incompatible relationship between people and nature into one of harmonious co-dependency.
“We’re focussed on getting farmers to understand their soils,” Lewis explains.
“Crop rotations are important in keeping fields healthy year after year, while planting legume crops such as soy and ground nuts help to naturally enhance soil nutrition.
In dealing with drought, we also teach our farmers to prepare fields with special techniques designed to retain moisture for months at a time.”
The evolving COMACO ecosystem
Indeed, as COMACO grows and blossoms, so too does the circular economy that surrounds it.
Of late, the organisation has invested in its flagship Chipata plant, located in Zambia’s Eastern Province.
It now deshells groundnuts in-house to create a biowaste product that is compacted, turned into briquettes and used as the fuel powering its dry processing of fruits and other products.
Meanwhile, acting as a leading proponent of forest conservation, COMACO pays an annual conservation dividend to communities that demonstrate a commitment to agreed conservation standards.
It partners with communities to reduce CO2 emissions and earn carbon credits which provide local people with an additional income, this initiative having started with nine chiefdoms as part of the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund pilot project in 2015.
The initial carbon verification produced 228,000 tonnes of CO2 emission reductions, a figure that saw COMACO pay out $490,000 across these nine communities.
Local leaders consulted with their community members to decide how to invest this money and decided on projects including boreholes, maize mills, oil expellers for local supplies of cooking oil, livestock and breeding pens, grain storage facilities, trucks for collecting farm commodities, and operational and salary support for local forest guards.
Five years on, COMACO has since grown this initiative to involve 38 chiefdoms, helping to restore 1.4 million hectares of local forests in the process.
“Through large scale adoption of agroforestry and the reduced need to cut trees for more farmland by local farmers, forests have begun to recover,” explains Lewis, “and It’s Wild! is helping these farmers see the value of forest protection with products such as honey, wild mushrooms and even carbon credits.
Women’s empowerment is another important priority for COMACO.
Currently, 52 percent of all smallholders that have joined its network are women as well as a growing number who serve on the executive committees of farmer cooperatives, providing a balanced and inclusive system of equal opportunities.
“And we’ve also started assisting our farmers in obtaining relevant certifications so that our products may be classified as organic,” Lewis adds.
“We’re excited to see them expressing interest in improving the quality of their produce, as they genuinely believe that It’s Wild! products are theirs and COMACO is their company that helps to tell their story to the consumer. And so they should.”
Changing the status quo
The organisation’s own staff embrace this same outlook, nurturing the its overall purpose to support small-scale farmers through a range of markets to achieve conservation outcomes.
Indeed, the CEO expresses his pride and admiration for the efforts of his almost entirely Zambian team, pointing to this workforce as the real engine orchestrating COMACO’s amazing work.
“I couldn’t forget my team, not can I think them enough,” he affirms.
“I’m consistently blown away by the way in which they look after each other, support each other, and work long hours to further our mission and protect the farmers that we’re committed to. I’m honoured to call myself their CEO – I might have the fancy title, but they deserve the credit.”
Cooperation with external parties is also a key strength of COMACO, including both philanthropic bodies and impact investors.
Lewis reveals: “We would not have gotten this far without the faith and support these partners have placed in our model.
“Some of our investors, for example, provide us with concessionary rates, meaning our financial pressures are slightly lifted, which ensures that we give our farmers a good price.
Too often, rural people are exploited. From their point of view, they work very hard and don’t get much money, so why should they then compromise themselves by prioritising the environment?
“We have been able to change this dynamic with the help of our partners.
These are not entities that are motivated by money or greed.
Rather, they share our desire to see socioeconomic and environmental progress in Africa.”
Creating a future for all
Beyond investors, retailers have had a similarly major impact on COMACO’s trajectory, often going the extra mile to help showcase its products and raise brand awareness with specialised in-store displays and other methods of marketing.
And the retail domain is inciting further anticipation from the Chief Exec as he casts an eye over the future.
He explains: “We’re receiving interest in our products from retailers in the US, UK, Germany, Belgium, South Africa and Botswana.
“Why is this exciting? Ultimately it means more demand for the quality products our farmers are helping to produce and more farmers we can support with better paying markets. It all works well for the farmer and conservation.”
Long term, COMACO’s vision is to become one of the largest producers of organic food products in the world – an objective that is entirely feasible given the stature of its expanding network.
That said, numerous challenges do remain. Logistically, COMACO’s model requires it to organise and train farmers and their leaders, develop communication systems, maintain quality control and minimise waste – processes that take on increasing complexity but are critical for its value chains.
“We have tried to use every technical solution we can find to keep our costs down,” Lewis comments.
“The challenge from here is to become even smarter about the way in which we manage our costs while ensuring quality and nutrition is upheld.
“If we continue on this track then I do believe that, with our farmer and conservation story behind us, we will realise our massive potential in the marketplace.
At the end of the day and for me personally, at least on a philosophical and spiritual level, it is symbolically about the elephant – do we want to share our world with these wild animals and the habitats they need? Can we find a way to live together as one?
“I think we’ve proven that it is possible. Our hope now is that as people discover our brand, our story and what we stand for, despite being a young company, we will make this vision a reality for Africa.”