afrol News, 10 March - Scientists are examining how to increase guinea pig production to boost food security in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where inhabitants keep the rodents as "micro-livestock". The researchers were originally puzzled to find guinea pigs in the DRC at all.
The research will look at ways of improving farming practices and fodder.
The DRC has one of the highest incidences of malnutrition in the world. Scientists from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) therefore pin great hopes to guinea pigs as a source of cheap meat in the country.
The scientists said they were originally "surprised" to find these rodents – native to South America - being kept as "micro-livestock" by rural households the troubled Congolese North and South Kivu districts. They soon partnered with Congolese researchers to investigate ways to use improved forages and better on-farm practices to increase guinea pig productivity in DRC.
Small and easy to conceal, guinea pigs are well-suited to the DRC's conflict zones, where extreme poverty and widespread lawlessness means that the looting of larger domestic livestock is commonplace.
The animals are also a relatively low-cost investment and reproduce quickly, with females capable of producing up to five litters per year, a total of 10-15 offspring. They also suffer from fewer diseases than pigs, chickens and rabbits, and in the event of disease outbreaks, their high reproduction rate means populations have a much shorter recovery time.
"We are not sure exactly how guinea pigs got to DRC," said CIAT forage scientist Brigitte Maass, "but they have enormous potential to improve rural livelihoods there."
The CIAT scientists were in eastern Congo as part of a German-funded project to help increase productivity in pigs and poultry production in the region to improve food security. But now, donors agreed to expand the three-year project to include guinea pigs as well.
The project focuses on the potential of using high-quality, highly-digestible forages - such as cowpea, lablab, pinto peanut and butterfly pea - to significantly boost the rate of livestock production.
"In DRC, guinea pigs are typically fed kitchen wastes, which makes them a great recycler," explains Ms Maass. "But there is definitely room for improvement by introducing these kinds of highly productive quality forages into their feeding system. We are working hard to establish which are the most effective and suitable."
On-farm practices, such as improved animal management and processing of forages through fermentation (silage), strengthening farmers' links to local and regional markets, were also described as crucial components of the project.
The next step for Ms Maass' team is to meet with farmers in DRC to establish "forage-feeding calendars" to help pinpoint times when they experience feed shortages, and help find ways to improve the system. The team has established trials in four villages to assess the suitability of forage varieties. They will also be conducting participatory research and talking extensively to farmers to ensure any recommendations are applicable to the specific prevailing conditions.
"Ultimately it is about more than just raising livestock," said CIAT sociologist Wanjiku Chiuri. "For example, many households use the revenue from selling livestock to pay for school fees, which often means that children are expected to contribute significantly to livestock keeping. By improving livestock productivity, the knock-on effects are improved health and the need for children to spend less time collecting forages, which in turn increase the chances of them being able to attend and concentrate on school."
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