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Unlocking the potential of wild forest products for climate action

Zambia’s quest to find 5 non-wood forest products with potential for boosting sustainable forest management and development


Key messages:

  • Non-wood forest products (NWFPs) offer considerable opportunities for economic development and environmental sustainability, highlighting their potential as key resources in climate action initiatives.
  • By establishing and enhancing value chains for new NWFPs, there's a dual benefit: it not only increases the economic value of forests, thereby incentivizing their conservation, but also provides alternative livelihoods for communities, potentially reducing reliance on economic activities, like charcoal and agricultural production, which might put pressure on forests.
  • The process involved in selecting NWFPs for development is critical, emphasizing the importance of fieldwork. Engaging directly with communities and leveraging their knowledge and experience ensures that the selection of NWFPs is culturally relevant, and more likely to be ecologically sustainable, and economically viable, laying a solid foundation for sustainable forest management and development.

Zambia, rich in forests covering nearly 66% of its land, is playing a proactive role in the global effort to combat climate change through REDD+ initiatives, in alignment with the UNFCCC commitments. While facing challenges in documenting emission reductions, Zambia is taking bold steps to overcome these obstacles by intensifying efforts at community and jurisdictional levels, with a particular focus on the North Western province.

With support of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the UN-REDD Programme and Center for International Forestry Research – World Agroforestry Center, Zambia is actively enhancing its understanding of relevant non-wood forest product (NWFP) value chains in the North Western province, aiming to generate low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways, in which forests will be preserved and revalorized and related livelihoods of local forest communities will be enhanced.

A CIFOR-ICRAF survey found that people in North-Western province collected at least 95 NWFPs in 2021. The pre-selection process to define those with the most potential for development began in March 2023 with an expert workshop in Solwezi. From the initial list of 95, workshop participants utilized criteria such as market demand, sustainability, livelihood impact, and availability to identify a list of 15 products with significant potential.

A comprehensive value chain selection methodology, involving 22 consensus-defined criteria across economic, environmental, and social dimensions, was then used to further reduce the list to five priority forest value chains that would receive more intensive study.

Data collection was a vital aspect of the selection methodology, with FAO/UN-REDD and CIFOR-ICRAF conducting a field survey in five North Western province districts, including focus groups discussions with 110 male and 50 female participants as well as conducting 66 market vendor interviews in Lusaka. The field work was supported by CIFOR and FAO technical experts, and led by Musonda Kapena, a co-founder of the Namfumu Conservation Trust.

Data collection wasn’t without challenges, mainly due to poor road infrastructure and inaccessibility during the rainy season from October to April. The rich linguistic variety in Zambia, which includes seven formally recognized languages and a total of 72 indigenous languages, also made identification of NWFPs a bit more challenging given the variety of different words for the same products. However, the research team’s commitment played a crucial role in overcoming these obstacles: “While gathering data, I used the ethos of Hearts and Minds and the fact that I am female made the relationship building so much easier to interact with the local women and older people,” notes Musonda. “Being a local Zambian woman helped me contextualize sub-cultures of the local communities and understand the indigenous knowledge systems.”

Five NWFPs were selected on the basis of their weighted scores for the different criteria: bee products, mushrooms, ntungulu (wild fruit), kiswita (wild vegetable), and lenga lenga (wild vegetable) with the following key findings highlighted:

  • Availability and access: While assessing accessibility and availability of NWFPs in the North Western Province of Zambia, researchers found that most products were widely known in the province, but some products, like katoto and musebo (specific species of wild mushrooms), are only available in certain villages.
  • Regulations and access: Apart from government regulations on levies for product conveyance, there were few official rules governing NWFPs. Locals enjoyed free access, while outsiders needed permission from local authorities. In one site, an influx of outsiders led to a competitive scramble for resources, highlighting potential challenges in regulating access, especially when it is perceived as common property.
  • Gender and age dynamics: Women were actively involved in collection, particularly for raw honey and busefwe (a wild mushroom), while men dominated the processing of certain products like rattan. The study also revealed nuanced definitions of youth and children in the community, impacting their involvement in harvesting.

Gender roles also varied among villages, influenced by factors like education, presence of retired civil servants, religious affiliations, single-parent or married households, and the distinction between new migrants and indigenous residents: “All these are factors that create variations in the manner in which management of the village affairs are done in terms of sustainable or non-sustainable harvesting processing and the use of NWFP at domestic level and for sale,” noted Musonda. 

  • Household participation and selling: Raw honey and busefwe were the most collected and sold NWFPs. Women were primary sellers, except for honey, rattan, and thatching grass, where men took a more active role. Children were also involved in selling specific products, which requires that future work pays attention to child labor to ensure it does not affect their education or health.

“Children are often sent out to collect wild fruits proximate to their communities,” says Musonda. “Children also escort older women and men into the forest to gather and collect wild fruits and mushrooms, intending to learn survival skills and to help carry loads back to the village.

  • Market demand and supply: The potential economic impact of increased commercialization was highlighted. Raw honey and busefwe were identified as products in high demand, with potential for increased sales. Vendors expressed preferences for honey products, indicating the potential to further develop the market.
  • Sustainability challenges: Concerns surrounding sustainability challenges, particularly related to environmental practices, included fire management, improper harvesting practices, and cutting down trees. Participants suggested solutions such as early burning, selective harvesting, and the creation of bylaws to promote sustainable harvesting practices.
  • Perceptions of changes: Both households and vendors were surveyed on their perceptions of changes in product availability over the past five years. While households generally believed in increased availability, vendors were more inclined to think availability had remained the same or decreased, highlighting a perception gap between producers and sellers.
  • Product classification: The classification of certain products as NWFPs came into question, with discussions around whether products like thatching grass, musebo, and lenga lenga are harvested or cultivated, sometimes confusing their classification as NWFPs. This raises important considerations for future research and policy development.

Musonda recounted that her most memorable experiences during the fieldwork were her powerful interactions with older community members. Older community members held important knowledge about conservation, sustainable harvesting practices, and botanical expertise, including distinguishing mushrooms from toadstools and identifying edible and poisonous berries. Musonda noted “I was amazed that the local men actually referred to the women for answers to some questions as they consider women as the custodians of the kitchen, food collection, gathering, preservations and home-based care of minor and major illness at household and community level.“

What's next?

The value chains of these selected five NWFPs are now being assessed to define targeted interventions and support the development of forest livelihoods and local businesses. The development of these forest value chains will enhance the value of standing forests (versus other land uses) and provide economic alternatives to charcoal and agriculture production, which are drivers of forest loss.

North Western is the province with the largest forest cover in Zambia, a natural richness to be protected and valued. Continued research and data collection to co-produce knowledge will be essential to adapt strategies and ensure long-term success of these efforts and to align local development efforts with global climate efforts.


  • Maryia Kukharava, Project Officer, Forestry Division, FAO
  • María Ruíz-Villar, Programme Officer, Forestry Division, FAO

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