For thousands of years South Americans have farmed guinea pigs - but this hasn't taken root in most other parts of the world, including Africa. We spoke to Brigitte Maass about the opportunities that they offer as livestock and what challenges there are in producing them.
What are guinea pigs?
Guinea pigs are native to South America. In Peru they call them "cuyes", but the animal has many different names all over the world. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), farmers call them "dende", and we think this comes from the French name "Cochon d'Inde", meaning "pig from India". But they are not pigs, or from India or Guinea. We therefore prefer to call them "domestic cavies".
Cavies have many uses. They were domesticated thousands of years ago as a small livestock species and continue to be farmed. They've also been used by medical researchers to investigate diseases and, mostly in western society - like Europe or northern America - they're kept as pets.
But traditionally they were used for meat. And they still are today, all around the world, with demand peaking in South American countries like Peru and Ecuador. Cavy farming can be a lucrative business. Some farmers even give up dairy farming because raising cavies is more economical. In Peru, for instance, the average peasant farmer earns about US$30 a month, while cavy farmers earn as much as US$130.
Why should they be considered as a source of meat?
Domestic cavies produce high-quality meat, similar to chicken, with high protein content. Their fat is also high in healthy poly-unsaturated fatty acids.
Cavies can also be eaten as an alternative to bushmeat. A big problem for biodiversity conservation in the forest areas of central Africa.
But the most important reason is that cavies do not compete with humans for their food. When you raise chickens, for instance, you need to feed them with grains that people could eat. Cavies are almost like little cows: they feed on all types of green forage and are fairly easy to keep. They are not picky in what they eat and also don't fall sick easily. Finally, they are shy animals and less likely to escape like rabbits might do, which can damage native ecosystems.
Are they currently being farmed in Africa?
Yes, they are being farmed in many African countries, and being eaten by millions of people. There's the possibility that missionaries introduced them, but we don't really know when or how they came to Africa. Today they are reared in various countries including Benin, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, DRC, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Togo.
But this isn't well known and could be because they're predominantly kept in houses or kitchens. It's only in Tanzania that they are counted in the national livestock census where they're estimated to number 600,000. But this number is probably far too low. We estimate that the DRC has about two million cavies, and that there are at least another half million in Cameroon.
In countries where cavies are raised to produce meat, we've found that it's often women and young boys who raise and sell them. And the incomes are used to pay school fees.
Another highly appreciated product from raising cavies is their manure. Farmers like it because it's higher in nitrogen than manure from other livestock, and also lighter to carry as it's relatively dry.
What should be done to support guinea pig farming as an industry?
For decades researchers and producers in South America have improved cavy production and marketing, and they are now frequently sold in supermarkets. By contrast, throughout sub-Saharan Africa, there's been almost no research or information on how to raise, produce or use cavies.
It's important that the whole value chain is developed, meaning markets must be developed too. To start with, more people on the continent need to consume more meat.
In a cavy project conducted in Cameroon and DRC from 2012 to 2014, we helped to develop these value chains. We established stakeholder platforms which connected cavy producers, traders and restaurateurs. We also invited researchers, reporters, bankers and politicians to several community meetings.
Platform members got technical training and their problems were taken note of by researchers. Producers were registered as legal groups and were able to open bank accounts. Animals are now sold more expensively and, in some towns, cavy meat can be ordered in a few restaurants. In eastern DRC, vegetables produced with cavy manure are fetching better prices in the market.
Another opportunity is cross-continental learning. We brought together people from African and South American countries. This allowed African cavy producers to piggyback on the experiences and advances in South America and save time in improving cavy production and marketing.