Wild about COMACO

by Brennan Duty, MBA ‘15

Brennan Duty, MBA ‘15

Cornell MBA students describe their experience working with the Zambian social enterprise, COMACO as part of the SGE immersion in the spring of 2014.

Anna Glaab (MBA ’15), Johann Tritthardt (MBA ’14), Helen Schnoes (MRP ’14) and I share a passion for impact investing, sub-Saharan Africa, equitable food systems and using business for good. Needless to say, when we learned we would be working with COMACO as part of the SGE immersion and we would travel to Zambia, we were ecstatic! COMACO is a Zambian social enterprise that takes a market-based approach to wildlife conservation and poverty alleviation.

In mid-February Johann conducted the first in-country company visit. This “scouting” trip gave us insight that no amount of virtual conversations or meetings could have provided. The trip allowed our team to gain a solid understanding of how we could best help COMACO. Specifically, COMACO needed a financial valuation of its food business so that it could procure investment and restructure its debt obligations.

In our follow-up visit to the client in late March 2014, Anna, Helen and I traveled the country to observe the operational aspects of the company – to understand the value chain, meet customers, and speak with consumers. The trip was eye-opening.

Zambia Farmers

To better understand COMACO’s value chain, we traveled from Lusaka, the capital in the middle of the country, to Chipata on the Eastern border with Malawi, and back. We met everyone along the value chain, from the farmers planting and harvesting the crops to the managers of the plants that produced COMACO’s It’s Wild!brands of peanut butter, honey, rice and dried fruits. The key take away from this experience was that centralization is key to both production efficiency and quality, and that good managers are just as important as raw materials in order to produce high-quality products.

In Lusaka, we met with the management at retail chains that carry COMACO products. We also conducted a marketing survey with consumers, speaking with them about why they choose COMACO products over competitors’ products. Our primary insight was that marketing – segmentation, targeting and positioning – of any brand is fundamental to strong sales and thus a higher company value.

In the end, the data we obtained during our second visit fed the assumptions of the financial model that we developed after the initial visit. By building the model, we were able to show how optimizing the value chain and aligning the messaging to the customers’ needs would boost sales and result in a higher valuation, thereby giving COMACO greater ability to restructure its debt and procure investment.

The SGE immersion will continue to work with COMACO in the spring of 2015 exploring opportunities to improve its competitiveness.

Anna, Helen, Johann and I would like to thank our client, COMACO, for the opportunity to work with them, as well as the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise for its academic guidance and the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future for underwriting our trips to Zambia.