Improving the sustainability of the trade in ‘Chikanda’ edible orchids in Zambia

Report to the Allan & Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust – July 2017

Project Aims and Rationale

Chikanda is a nutritious and popular delicacy in Zambia, prepared from the tubers of wild orchids and cooked with peanuts to create a meatloaf – like ‘cake’. Over – exploitation of wild orchids (c . 85 – 140 species mainly from 4 genera) to support the Chikanda trade pose s a near term risk of extinction or extirpation to many species. Harvesting techniques are often destructive and unsustainable, while many of those involved in collecting the tubers are young women and girls, for whom increasing travel (including across borders into Angola and DRC) to find wild orchids disrupts their education and jeopardises their safety.

The project aims to stem biodiversity loss and support vulnerable rural livelihoods by:
•  Identifying optimum cultivation methods and enhancing nursery and laboratory capability in – country to aid the replacement of wild harvesting by sustainable cultivation
•  Establishing community – based management plans in rural areas where the harvesters live to encourage sustainable practices
•  Raising awareness with conservationists, communities and policy stakeholders of the need to conserve wild orchids

The majority of project activities are focused in North Western Province, Zambia, with some workshops, meetings and market research taking place in towns and cities further afield.

Partners involved

Alongside RBG Kew, several other organisations are partners in the project:
• Homegarden Landscape Consultants Ltd. (Zambia)
• Copperbelt University (Zambia)
• Uppsala University (Sweden)
• Cape Institute of Micropropagation (South Africa)
• Orchid Seeds Stores for Scientific Use – OSSSU (UK)

Activities completed in Year 1

Baseline study with beneficiary households

A ‘rapid assessment’ baseline survey has been completed by Copperbelt University (CBU). The project area, Mwinilunga District, has 800 households with a total population of 4,363 people (2,155 males, 2,208 females). The study sample included nine villages, nine Focal Group Discussions (50 participants), and 15 village Key Informant Interviews, yielding useful information on traditional utilisation practices of wild edible orchids, and baseline data on household income. Agriculture is the primary source of income (average annual income £83), while those who also harvest Chikanda orchids can earn an additional £41.

This survey has also allowed us to gather useful baseline data on participation in Chikanda harvesting by school age children, and the sites visited/journeys made. It also gave us the opportunity to encourage the formation of producer groups interested in becoming sustainable Chikanda growers.

Chikanda Market Research

A key challenge is to identify which orchid species are most implicated in the Chikanda value chain: often tubers from multiple orchid species within a species-rich grassland setting will be harvested together, and cannot easily be identified by eye. An MSc student from Uppsala University (UU) has completed 83 interviews with actors throughout the supply chain (9 harvesters, 45 wholesale traders, 29 vendors) at 34 markets and collecting sites across three Zambian provinces. 48 samples (a mix of fresh and dried tubers, processed Chikanda cakes and ground flour, each with 1 to >100 tubers present) were collected and are being identified using molecular DNA ‘barcoding’. Thus far 62 species have been identified from four main genera – Brachycorythis, Disa, Habenaria and Satyrium. This work will be completed and results disseminated in summer 2017.

Field sampling and collections

Known popular harvesting sites were visited in five provinces in northern Zambia to collect seeds from as wide a range of orchid species as possible. This material will be used in CBU’s labs to attempt to mass-propagate new orchid seedlings. Orchid root and tuber samples were also collected to capture potential beneficial mycorrhizal fungi: this material has been exported to Kew under strict quarantine conditions. Over 1,500 fungal isolates are now in culture at Kew, of which ~450 are considered probable orchid mycorrhizal fungi (OMF).

Training and capacity building

Several courses have been delivered to staff employed at CBU’s laboratories, accompanied where space allowed by Forestry Department staff, NGOs and Reserve Managers and Peace Corps volunteers:
• In September 2016, an orchid propagation specialist at Kew travelled to Zambia to provide training at CBU in propagation techniques and help to install newly procured laboratory equipment. The majority of orchid species enjoy a mutual relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, and the ability to collect, isolate and culture the relevant fungi is critical in the successful propagation of orchids under glass.

• Also in September, a Red List specialist at Kew delivered a course in IUCN Red List assessment techniques for project participants in Zambia. All attendees are now qualified Red List assessors, and the group were able to prepare four draft species assessments for submission to IUCN. During summer 2017 we have recruited two interns in the Kew Herbarium to collate and geo-reference historical specimens, which will enable the team in Zambia to compile a further 20 assessments, which are helpful in planning in situ conservation measures.

• In March 2017, a specialist commercial grower of terrestrial African orchids (Hildegard Crous, Cape Institute of Micropropagation) spent a week with the team at CBU to demonstrate optimum methods and timing for greenpod collection, sowing of fresh greenpods and re-plating of germinating seeds/ seedlings (to be done every 8-12 weeks). Hardening off methods were addressed, as well as improving the culture of mature plants in the greenhouse, and general best practice in laboratory management, record-keeping, sterilisation, etc. Correct implementation of these techniques will be critical in ensuring large-scale (potentially tens of thousands) culture of seedlings for eventual distribution to harvesting communities.

• In April 2017, Phil Seaton, a trainer from OSSSU (and Kew Honorary Research Associate) delivered training in mature orchid seed harvesting, handling, storage and viability testing.


For the project to achieve long-term success, it will clearly be necessary to build coalitions among harvesting communities, conservation practitioners and policy leaders, and also consumers. Our baseline survey showed that 62% of participating communities are unaware of the potential environmental impacts of over-exploitation. We have followed up the survey with nine awareness raising workshops with villagers and local government officials. In summer 2017, we will organise a visit for harvesters from Mwinilunga to CBU to witness orchid cultivation under glass, and to visit urban markets to improve their understanding of the ‘upstream’ Chikanda value chain. This will enable a full action plan to be developed to install nursery capacity in target communities and provide training in orchid management, storage of tubers, and cultivation methods.

At national level, we have initiated useful contacts with Zambian government officials responsible for national laws and international treaties/conventions governing biodiversity protection, and continue to share information about the project’s aims and activities with them at regular intervals. We are also disseminating information about the project to the British High Commission in Lusaka.

Already there are promising signs that other communities outside those targeted in Mwinilunga are coming forward, and there is interest in replicating the project from Agriculture, and Forestry officials and NGOs.

Articles describing the project have also been published in New Scientist and on the BBC Earth website, and a presentation about the project was given at the AETFAT Botanical Conference in Nairobi in May.

Next steps

The project will continue for the next two years with funding from the UK Government Darwin Initiative. During this time, we aim to increase and disseminate understanding of how to cultivate some of the most heavily exploited Chikanda species. We will install capacity and educate harvesting communities to cultivate orchid species in village nurseries, enabling them to enhance their living standards via increased control and reliability of Chikanda harvests, and allowing wild orchid populations to recover. We aim to achieve a 30% rise in household income for participants, and to record a reduction in travel to remote sites and an increase in school attendance by schoolchildren previously involved in harvesting.

Thank you for your support for this project.

Mark Davies
RBG Kew Development Team

Philip Seaton, OSSSU, delivers training at Copperbelt University in seed
handling and storage, attended by CBU technicians and Forestry Department staff and a Peace Corps volunteer.


Geo Mpatwa (CBU) and Mokwani Kaluwe (Research Officer, Forestry) using a Laminar Flow Hood to mount orchid seeds on glass plates, during training delivered by Hildegard Crous of Cape Institute of Micropropagation. It is vital to use a work bench with a sterile environment such as this.


A field trip to collect seeds and tubers of Chikanda orchids (genus Disa). Mr Shawa, on the right, is an experienced Chikanda collector, who was able to explain traditional harvesting practices to Nicholas Wightman (in-country project manager) and Hildegard Crous.


Disa hircicornis, a Chikanda orchid species in its preferred dambo (seasonally flooded grasslands) habitat.


Satyrium carsonii is found in miombo woodland. The Chikanda trade traditionally favours dambo species, but as these sites become over-exploited, those in woodlands are also harvested.