In many parts of the world, procuring dinner can be a daily struggle. A nose for business is not just for the savvy—it’s a survival skill. Ask Dale Lewis, founder of the Zambian It’s Wild! brand of eco-friendly products, where he got his business acumen and he’ll modestly insist, “I’m not clever, just a hard-headed, dogged kind of person.”
In rural Luangwa Valley, where Lewis directs the Zambia Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), hunger and grinding poverty have long been facts of life. With few options available to feed their families, many residents turn to logging and illegal hunting. But exploitation often outstrips the rates of renewal.
Some people might dismiss such a place as hopeless, but Lewis never has. Under his guidance, subsistence farmers and hunters have transferred their labors to new, more sustainable trades. They have become organic farmers, beekeepers, gardeners, carpenters, and in the newest business endeavor from this remote corner of East Africa, jewelry-makers. In the workshop of local designer Misozi Kadewele, the same snare wire once used to trap elephants, lions, and leopards is being crafted into one-of-a-kind bracelets, necklaces, and earrings called “Snarewear.” Kadewele handpicks her raw material from large bags of the tangled metal, then strings it with seeds from local plants and trees for a truly “green” design.
The tradesmen and women who produce Snarewear and other It’s Wild! products are part of a farming co-op known as Community Markets for Conservation, COMACO for short. Lewis initially designed the co-op to encourage poachers to turn in firearms and snares and receive job training. Hoping for a better life, many of Luangwa’s former hunters have embraced the program, collectively exchanging 40,000 snares and 800 firearms for new skills since COMACO’s inception in 2002.
“COMACO participants are significantly empowered because the markets are right at their doorstep,” says Lewis. “We have an 80 to 90 percent batting average. There’s something about this program that makes people want to take part—they know it’s good for their country.”
Today Lewis counts 30,000 registered members among his guilds. The eco-friendly products and services they sell range from rice and peanut butter cultivated without pesticides or fertilizers to the increasingly trendy Snarewear recycled jewelry to fully catered eco-tours for visitors who come to see the wildlife of South Luangwa National Park. These tourists can find It’s Wild! products at the regional Mfuwe Airport, and customers can also shop for the organic goods at supermarkets in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, and outlying towns. The high-quality goods, wrapped in colorful packaging and stamped with an elephant logo, stand out among the usual cheap imports for sale. To target consumers who want to support local producers as well as better farming methods and land-use practices that sustain wildlife, COMACO-branded products also bear detailed descriptions of the associated social and environmental benefits. Business is humming. In 2006, the co-op grossed more than $350,000 in sales. The profits were ploughed right back into the program with a goal that it be self-sustaining by 2012.
Though Lewis credits the specialists he’s hired in organic farming, poacher transformation, beekeeping, and other areas to develop the producer guilds of Luangwa, he attributes most of COMACO’s success to the participants. Finding uses for discarded materials such as snare wire is second nature to most Zambians. As Lewis says, “If it’s not nailed down or in concrete, it’s usable—particularly if it’s metal.” Ingenuity springs in part from necessity.