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Cavies bring protein, income and health benefits across African Savannah

Cavies provide food and nutritional security, particularly for women and children (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Cavies provide food and nutritional security, particularly for women and children
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Across Africa's savannah region - in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire and Tanzania - guinea pigs (or cavies) can provide food and nutritional security, particularly for women and children. The small animals are generally not considered mainstream livestock in Africa, so women and children are more likely to raise them and keep the income when the cavies are sold. But little evidence exists about cavy breeds across Africa. Therefore, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), is funding a new research project focused on understanding and improving breeds, improving cavy husbandry practices and facilitating critical links amongst stakeholders involved in cavy farming and markets.

Focus on feeding and breeding

It is suggested that cavies have been introduced more than once to Africa from South America as their distribution ranges from Senegal to Tanzania. This also suggests that various local breeds exist. On the other hand, due to unrestricted mating and lack of reproductive management of the herds, scientists anticipate that very high inbreeding rates may lead to high disease susceptibility and generally weaker animals in the long-term. Extensive field surveys in Cameroon and eastern DRC are underway, focusing on animal husbandry and genetics, and impact on livelihoods. The same methods will be replicated to identify the differences or variability across communities.

One cavy can generate around US$1 for a farmer at a market (© Dr Brigitte Maass (CIAT))
One cavy can generate around US$1 for a farmer at a market
© Dr Brigitte Maass (CIAT)

The project is led by the Biosciences eastern and central Africa Hub at the International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI Hub) in Kenya. African and international scientists across a broad range of disciplines (forage specialists, social scientists, molecular geneticists, animal breeders and animal nutritionists) have been brought together under the project to work with smallholder farmers in Cameroon and eastern DRC to ensure that women and children remain the managers of this important source of food and income.

Specifically, the project will map and analyse current cavy culture through household surveys, implement genetic diversity studies to guide the development of a breeding programme, and target improved and agro-ecologically adapted forage plants to enable households to improve animal feed. African researchers, students and extension staff will also be trained in animal genetics, tropical forage husbandry and propagation systems, and improved methods of cavy culture.

Tackling food insecurity

This project is building on previous work conducted during the 1990s in Cameroon and work funded by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in DRC and Tanzania. Some of this previous research, carried out by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Heifer International, discovered just how important cavies are as a source of protein for households, particularly in war-torn or post conflict regions.

Cavies are small and easy to conceal (© Dr Brigitte Maass (CIAT))
Cavies are small and easy to conceal
© Dr Brigitte Maass (CIAT)

Small and easy to conceal, cavies have been shown to be well-suited to areas where poverty, insecurity and war make it difficult to keep larger domestic livestock. It is also easy to replenish stocks because farmers only need a few to start breeding again and the animals reproduce quickly: the gestation period for cavies is approximately 67 days and females can conceive two hours after giving birth, potentially producing 10-12 pups a year.

Domestic cavies provide a high-quality meat source, with high levels of protein in similar quantities as chicken meat. Raw meat, for example, contains about 20 per cent protein, as opposed to beef or lamb (17-19 per cent). The cavy skin, which is usually consumed, contains more than 30 per cent protein and the white meat has excellent nutritional properties, being high in polyunsaturated fatty acids and low in cholesterol.

Aside from being a source of nutrition, cavies are a ready source of income. One cavy, for example, can generate around US$1 for a farmer at a market. When sold in supermarkets and bars, a cavy can fetch up to US$3.50.

New insights and information for farmers

Local governments are increasingly recognising the importance of cavy culture (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Local governments are increasingly recognising the importance of cavy culture
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

In many African countries, local governments are increasingly recognising the importance of cavy culture and their important role for income generation and food security. In Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire, for example, Livestock Ministries have begun to focus seriously on cavies and other small livestock, including grass cutters, as important contributors to tackling food security and poverty alleviation.

This AusAID funded research project will help inform governments and farmer groups across the region. "We are working hard on compiling information we want to disseminate, particularly through facilitating engagement with key stakeholders," Dr Appolinaire Djikeng, Technology manager and senior research scientist at the BecA-ILRI Hub explains. "But we will also publish scientific studies and work with the media, in addition to working as much as possible on South-South knowledge transfer, by tapping into existing knowledge from Peru and other Andean countries."

* This research project is one of seven being funded by AusAID in a new Africa-Australia Research for Development partnership with Australia's national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the BecA-ILRI Hub. The partnership is focused on improving food and nutritional security, and animal health in the region as well as building the capacity of African scientists and national research institutes.

Written by: Larelle McMillan, CSIRO and Brigitte Maass, CIAT

Date published: August 2012

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An interesting paper !! (posted by: ETOUNDI SEH)

 

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