Nelly Bassily | March 1, 2010
Small, furry rodents have been found in some Congolese homes. They eat kitchen scraps and breed often. But don’t worry, they’re not pests. They’re guinea pigs. And they can be an important source of protein for families.
Guinea pigs are native to South America. In many South American countries, guinea pig meat forms a major part of local diets. It has been compared in taste to pork, dark chicken meat, or rabbit.
No one knows how or when guinea pigs arrived in Africa. But, last year, an international research group discovered them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now, rural people in North and South Kivu districts are raising the rodents as “micro-livestock.”
There are many reasons why guinea pigs are well-suited to this part of the country. As part of ongoing conflicts, larger livestock are frequently stolen. But guinea pigs are small and easy to conceal. They are also hardy animals. They can survive off scraps. And they suffer from fewer diseases than pigs, chickens, or rabbits.
Guinea pigs reproduce often and grow quickly. A female can give birth to as many as 15 pups per year. The offspring reach one kilogram in about three months – ready to be eaten or sold at market.
Researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, or CIAT, were looking for ways to boost livestock production when they found locals raising guinea pigs. The group had originally focused on pork and poultry.
Michael Peters leads the Forages Program at CIAT. He says no one had contemplated guinea pigs when the program started. Now, he believes the rodents could prove indispensible.
CIAT hopes to assist rural communities to improve animal feeding practices. This will result in larger, healthier animals. For example, they hope to identify periods when animal feed is in short supply, and find ways to fill the shortage. CIAT will also investigate which forages encourage guinea pigs to grow more quickly and produce more nutritious meat.