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Stealing the market

Since leaving his poaching days behind Moffat Mwale has boosted his income and food security (© Georgina Smith)
Since leaving his poaching days behind Moffat Mwale has boosted his income and food security
© Georgina Smith

Two years ago, in Mfuwe on the fringes of Zambia's South Luangwa national park, Moffat Mwale was used to a life on the run. With guns and snares, he poached buffalo and elephant for a living. But then he was caught and sentenced to two years and six months in prison. After his release, tired of struggling to avoid arrest and fines, he sought expert advice on how to farm and has since boosted his income ten-fold, selling organic rice and vegetables to a ready market.

His transformation was supported by the Community Markets for Conservation, COMACO, a non-profit company. Tackling the duel dilemmas and core reasons for poaching - unemployment and food insecurity in Zambia's game management areas - COMACO provides sustainable agricultural advice and a guaranteed market under the "It's Wild" trademark, boosting income for smallscale farmers and providing the opportunity to get their organic produce into lodges and on supermarket shelves.

Poachers turned organic farmers

While living in Zambia's national parks is prohibited, the game management areas bordering them are settlements where elephants, antelope and lions roam freely. But on average, two in every ten households in these areas struggle to feed their families, and with few money making opportunities or agricultural markets and a handful of legal hunting licences available, many turn to illegal poaching to make ends meet.

In total, over 77,00 snares and 1,900 guns have been handed over to the authorities (© Georgina Smith)
In total, over 77,00 snares and 1,900 guns have been handed over to the authorities
© Georgina Smith

Since full operation in 2004, in consultation with the government and conservation authorities such as the Conservation Farming Unit, COMACO has supported a total of 845 poachers in game management areas across ten districts in Zambia to surrender their guns and snares in exchange for technical organic farming advice and a guaranteed market. In total, 77,508 snares and 1,918 guns have been handed over to the authorities.

"We realised that this is about much more than saving elephants," explains COMACO director Dale Lewis, who started the programme backed by the Wildlife Conservation Society. "It's about making families food secure. Now we have families in a food surplus situation so they can sell and they don't want to go back."

Inter-cropping nitrogen rich Faidherbia albida acacia trees is a sustainable technique for enhancing soil fertility (© Georgina Smith)
Inter-cropping nitrogen rich Faidherbia albida acacia trees is a sustainable technique for enhancing soil fertility
© Georgina Smith

In a wheelbarrow next to Mwale's house are small bags of nitrogen-rich Faidherbia albida acacia saplings, which he will inter-crop with maize to boost his family's food supply all year round. Training is delivered to farmer groups or cooperatives at regional level, through representatives and over 686 lead farmers. Technologies such as treadle pumps have been distributed to groups as an incentive to raise quality standards, enabling them to grow more.

Expert advice on organic methods of quality horticultural, rice and livestock farming to increase soil fertility and livestock health includes pest management techniques like crop rotation and inter-cropping with nutrient rich legumes like Gliricidia fabaceae and pigeon pea. Not all COMACO farmers are former poachers. The fee to join the Producer Group Cooperative is ZMK 20,000 (US$4) - a price 14,000 farmers in Mfuwe's district alone and more than 40,000 farmers nation-wide are clearly happy to pay.

The future's "Green"

It is the link with major end markets that has been crucial to the business's success. The Kakumbi Green Market is a small "It's Wild!" store in the heart of Mfuwe town. Every Monday and Thursday it is swamped with colourful non-traditional vegetables: yellow, red and green peppers, carrots, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, leeks, herbs and spices, ginger, garlic, coriander, parsley, basil and mint.

The Kakumbi Green Market is a small "It's Wild!" store (© Georgina Smith)
The Kakumbi Green Market is a small "It's Wild!" store
© Georgina Smith

Produce is collected from cooperatives with transport provided by the company. Twelve lodges in the surrounding area bring their shopping lists to the Green Market, a hub and central point from where value added organic products - peanut butter, quality rice, honey and maize flour - are sent to retail outlets throughout the country.

An acquired taste

Apart from increasing local biodiversity, organic non-traditional crops and vegetables introduced by COMACO - from soya beans and groundnuts to legumes and salad vegetables like cucumbers - have improved the local diet. Initially reluctant to give it a try, senior horticultural extension officer Simon Banda observed: "People here never used to eat aubergines for example, now they do. We've given people a wider source of nutrients and variety of relish," he said.

Sorting and grading the rice is one of the activities carried out by COMACO farmers to add value and boost income (© Georgina Smith)
Sorting and grading the rice is one of the activities carried out by COMACO farmers to add value and boost income
© Georgina Smith

Meeting the high quality and constant supply demanded by supermarkets and local lodges has been a challenge. But many lodges no longer import vegetables, fruits and herbs from commercial suppliers in towns and cities up to eight hours away, and supermarkets continuously renew their contracts.

Farmers like Mwale are not only food-secure, but with better incomes they have built extensions on their homes and paid for school fees. In future, COMACO plans to officially monitor such social impact with support from the Zambian government, Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley in America.

The motto "Organic matter matters" has taken the company's market from strength to strength, and provided a different way of life for hundreds of families. Not to mention a healthier wildlife population.

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: January 2011

 

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