Livestock Research for Rural Development 9 (5) 1997

Citation of this paper

The current stage and future prospects of guinea pig production under smallholder conditions in West Africa; 2. Cameroon case


M Nuwanyakpa, S D Lukefahr*, D Gudahl** and J D Ngoupayou***

PLAN International, PO Box 25326, Messa, Yaounde, Republic of Cameroon, West Africa
* Department of Animal & Wildlife Sciences, Texas A&M University,
Kingsville, Campus Box 156, Kingsville, TX 78363, USA.
** HPI/ Africa Programs, PO Box 808, Little Rock, AR, 72203, USA.
*** Institute of Animal and Veterinary Research, PO Box 1457, Yaounde, Republic of Cameroon.


Although guinea pig (GP) production is becoming more widespread in West Africa most of the work on smallholder GP project development has been done in Cameroon by two organizations - Heifer Project International (HPI) and the Institute of Animal and Veterinary Research (known by its French acronym as IRZV). HPI is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is committed to supporting integrated and holistic rural agricultural development projects worldwide. IRZV is one of the two research agencies within the Cameroonian Ministry of Scientific Research. As such , the findings from three studies conducted by HPI and IRZ animal scientists have been reviewed so that the current stage and future prospects of smallholder GP production in West Africa can be assessed.

Key words: guinea pigs, Africa , rural development, meat production


Through a recent survey , small-scale farmers in Cameroon have identified eight major factors that limit guinea pig (GP) production. The first of these is the lack of reliable markets. The second is the GP small size which requires that at least several be slaughtered to feed an average family (and the large number of friends and neighbors that a typical family frequently hosts). Farmers' lack of understanding of good GP management (including feeding , breeding , housing and disease control) is given as the third most important problem currently facing GP producers. With respect to the future prospects of rearing GP by small-holders, five priorities have been identified. In declining order they are: formation of GP production and marketing cooperatives; development of nutrition education and marketing activities in villages peri-urban and urban areas; emphasis on GP health care in field visits; implementation of training and extension programs; and the supply of improved imported GP lines.

This paper will address these priorities and also provide some background on the guinea pig program in Cameroon.

Survey report findings

The usefulness of GP as meat producers and as a source of income in peri-urban (Ngoupayou 1992; Ngoupayou et al 1995) and rural (Lukefahr 1984; Nuwanyakpa 1993) areas of Cameroon has been reported. These studies have reported on GP production under smallholder conditions. The first report by Lukefahr (1984) documented that there were few GP farmers present in the northwest province (NWP) such that the report focused on the location and subsequent distribution of breeding stock to limited-resource farmers and on training and extension activities.

The training and extension methods entailed helping farmers to master basic management practices at each of the production stages of GP husbandry, instead of conducting a one-time course to cover all issues. This approach developed and maintained strong farmer interest and solidified their GP management capabilities. Lukefahr's work also reported on the characterization of the local GP stock, involving prolificacy, average birth weights, birth to weaning survival, growth rate and average slaughter weight at 8 months of age.

Ngoupayou's work (1992) consisted of two major parts. The first part dealt with a survey and monitoring of GP raising in some of the peri-urban areas of the central and west provinces. The survey was aimed at identifying GP farmers, studying the farming systems involved, identifying farming constraints and evaluating the socio-economic impact of GP rearing on households.

During the survey, representative farmers were visited fortnightly over a 1-year period and quantitative information on reproduction , growth and feeding performances of GP were recorded. The types of feeds given to GP and overall smallholder GP management practices were also documented. The second part of the study was done on-station (IRZV, Yaounde) and involved breeding and feeding trials to assess the utilization of harvested fodder kitchen refuse and crop residues , and their roles in the year-round feeding of GP. A more comprehensive paper based on these field and station case experiences was later published (Ngoupayou et al 1995).

Nuwanyakpa (1993) reported on a base-line survey implemented by HPI to identify bottlenecks to GP rearing by rural farmers in the northwest of Cameroon. The survey assessed production consumption and marketing trends; identified producers' felt needs with respect to the types and magnitudes of development assistance needed to foster smallholder GP production and formulated appropriate interventions for development agencies. The majority of the interviewers involved in the survey were well-trained HPI/Cameroon farmer leaders who served as village-based extension agents in the program. During the survey period (June to August 1993), project extension staff and farmer leaders visited individual farmers, determined sexes in adult GP, tallied the total number of GP (adults and offspring), assessed the feeding and housing conditions for GP and then completed detailed questionnaires.

Many of the farmers involved in the three surveys kept small and large ruminants, pigs, poultry and rabbits under traditional, or semi-intensive, production systems. All of the families were engaged in crop farming with various combinations of yams, sweet potatoes, maize, bananas , plantains, groundnut, cassava, soybeans and various types of beans. Crop by-products and also kitchen refuse were commonly fed to GP. Some farmers also fed harvested forages especially Brachiaria ruziziensis, Panicum maximum and Pennisetum purpureum (Ngoupayou 1992; Nuwanyakpa 1993). None of the farmers provided any water or feeding and drinking bowls for their GP. Also, GP were reared in polygamous groups where mis-management possibly contributed to post-partum matings and inbreeding of stock.

Genetic origin and characterization of local stock

The strain or line of GP found throughout West Africa is presumably of indiscriminate genetic origin. In the northwest province of Cameroon it is characterized by a tri-colored coat pattern: black and red pigmentation with varying degrees of white spotting (Lukefahr 1984). On some farms the pelage variation gives the smooth or rough-haired coat pattern. This latter coat type of GP is preferred by some farmers because of its perceived higher reproductive performance , lower mortality rate at birth and more rapid growth rate (Ngoupayou 1992).

Based on empirical evidence, levels of reproduction and growth, as well as mature size appear to be much lower than literature values involving other strains across different environments and management conditions. Of course, adverse environmental factors cannot be overlooked with respect to the observed poor performance levels. One hypothesis may be the common ancestry to a single imported line of stock with higher prolificacy and larger mature body size characteristics. This single line may have been comprised of few animals resulting in random genetic drift and/or the consequences of inbreeding depression (as suggested by the uniform coat color). Whereas efforts should be taken to conserve this unique line, general fitness and performance could conceivably be improved by crossing to unrelated stocks.

In 1996, twenty four GP from Ecuador (descendants from the large body size line developed at La Molina University in Peru) were exported by HPI to Cameroon. Initial observations of the F1 crossbred dams and litters are: larger litter size, faster growth and heavier mature weights relative to local strain performance.

Present level of farmers' experiences in raising guinea pigs

In 1993, HPI/Cameroon undertook the largest survey on smallholder GP production that has yet been reported in Cameroon (Nuwanyakpa 1993). That survey involved a total of 94 farmers from 17 villages located in 5 of the 7 divisions of the northwest province. Thirty-two percent of the respondents were females and 68% were males. Eighteen percent of the farmers had not known of GP before the interviews. Although the vast majority (82%) of the farmers were familiar with GP that awareness was relatively recent. Fifty-three percent of the farmers interviewed indicated that they knew about these animals only during the past 5 years. Another 35% knew of GP only during the last 20 years. This suggests that about 88% of those farmers first knew of GP only in the 1970s and 1980s.

More farmers had knowledge about GP than those who had actual experience in rearing these animals. Of all the farmers interviewed, only 36% had any experience in raising GP and only 15% (14 farmers: 8 males and 6 females) were raising GP at the time the questionnaires were administered. This study, and that carried out in the central and west provinces of Cameroon by Ngoupayou (1992), confirmed that the management of GP under smallholder conditions in Cameroon is either absent or rudimentary.

In the HPI/Cameroon survey (Nuwanyakpa 1993), farmers who were raising GP had a total of 313 GP (220 females and 93 males). The average was 22 GP per farmer (range: 5-87). These results were similar to the findings of Ngoupayou (1992) who reported that the number of GP owned varied between 10 and 100. About 50% of the GP farmers involved in that survey kept more than 30 GP.

Reproduction and growth trial

A one-year breeding trial was conducted from May 1983 to April 1984 in which a colony was initiated with 5 females and one male (Lukefahr 1984). Female offspring were retained for breeding (3 months of age) during the trial to assess productivity of the strain and to compare efficiency with rabbits. Breeding males were replaced quarterly to ensure that inbreeding was avoided. These males were randomly obtained from different sites to minimize genetic relationships and inbreeding. Litter size and individual weight at birth and survival from birth to 3 months of age were recorded. Each offspring was identified by sex and unique coat color pattern. The body weights of several guinea pigs were recorded at 8 months of age as an indicator of market/mature weight. The diet consisted of forage (free choice involving mainly elephant grass and other grass legume and weed species) and limited concentrate (poultry grower mash). Water was made available.

In this trial , Lukefahr (1984) reported that the average farrowing weight was 478 g. The average weights of offspring at 15 and 20 weeks were approximately 350 and 500 g , respectively. Data consisting of body weight records were available on 34 offspring from 20 litters although a total of 41 offspring from 23 litters were born to the 5 original females. Average litter size born per farrowing was 1.8 . Litter size born ranged from 1 to 4 with 38% of the females giving birth to one offspring 52% to twins and 10% to triplets or quadruplets. Ngoupayou et al. (1995) reported a range of 1 to 6 offspring born alive and a mean of 1.6. Average birth and weaning (at 4 weeks) weights were about 83 and 178 g respectively. The average daily gains were 3.8 and 2.0 g before weaning (4 weeks) and between 4 and 15 weeks of age. At 32 weeks of age (when GP were slaughtered) the body weight of GP averaged about 800 g. Ngoupayou (1992) documented average body weights of 91 and 180 g at birth and weaning (3 weeks); average daily weight gains of 4.3 and 2.9 g before and after weaning; and by 15 weeks of age the average weights of males and females were 400 and 385 g respectively. Ngoupayou et al (1995), in a study involving GP production on subsistence farms , reported average litter size born alive of 1.6, body weight at 12 weeks of 314 g and overall mortality of 13%.

Italian workers (Cicogna et al 1992) have also studied reproductive and growth performances of GP raised for meat. They reported a prolificacy of 3.8 (numbers born/litter) and an annual fertility of 13.6 (numbers born alive/breeding female/year). They also reported more impressive average GP weights at birth, weaning (3 weeks) and 15 weeks, of 99 247 and 738 g , respectively.

Diseases were apparently not a major problem in the work of Lukefahr (1984) and Ngoupayou (1992). In the former study the birth to weaning survival rate was 100% and in the latter study a higher mortality rate of 5% at birth and 1% for adult GP was reported.

Comparative performances of GP and rabbits under subsistence village conditions in Cameroon are presented in Table 1. Basically rabbits are the more biologically efficient species although better management skills are required.

In Cameroon, as in the rest of West Africa, there is a distinct dry and wet season of roughly six months each. The relative humidity is higher and ambient temperatures are lower during the wet than in the dry season. Some data on smallholder rabbit production collected by HPI/Cameroon workers over several years show a consistent seasonal effect on rabbit mortality rate. These data revealed that rabbit mortality was about twice as high during the wet than during the dry season.

Although GP are raised under much more rustic conditions than rabbits (eg: rabbits in hutches, fed and watered twice a day, supplemental farm-compounded concentrates often provided ; whereas GP are kept on the floor with few management interventions) in none of the studies reported to date in Cameroon did farmers express concern over any seasonal effects on GP survivability. This finding agrees with the observations from Peru by Quijandria et al (1983b) that seasonal effects were non-significant for litter size and body weight.

Smallholder guinea pig breeding practices and implications

A major problem under traditional colony management of GP by small farmers is that GP are exposed to a high level of predation (Ngoupayou 1992), generally from cats, dogs, rats and snakes. Special precautions must therefore be taken to provide adequate shelter in order to protect the GP from such predators.

Inbreeding is another potential problem under traditional systems of rearing GP (Huss and Roca 1982; Ngoupayou 1992; Nuwanyakpa 1993). Most of the farmers who are raising GP in Cameroon do not know how to determine sex (ie: distinguish females from males). These animals (males and females) are housed promiscuously on the floors of bedrooms, kitchens or rabbit sheds (Ngoupayou 1992; Nuwanyakpa 1993). This polygamous or colony system enables GP to breed and run freely on the floor. Breeding records are seldom kept. The female to male ratio (3:1) is often too low and there is potentially the problem of inbreeding (Nuwanyakpa 1993).

To lessen, or eliminate inbreeding, one practical measure is to trade males among farmers. Such a male exchange program and replacement of males that have been accidentally lost are now well established in the HPI/Cameroon rabbit project which involves over 2,500 families and nearly 17,000 rabbits. Another technique for avoiding inbreeding is to house 10-15 females and 1 male in low-cost pens as a polygamous group. The male can be removed immediately after the female has farrowed. Breeding females and their progeny are kept in the same pen until weaning. The young can then be moved to a pen reserved for fattening (Ngoupayou 1992). By 1 to 2 months of age the male and female weaners could be separated to avoid possible inbreeding.

Given the moderate to high heritabilities of some economically important traits in GP, selection procedures could be implemented in smallholder GP production enterprises. Unfortunately, a third constraint to smallholder GP production is that selection for reproductive performance , growth rate, health and against physical defects are often not practiced. Whatever selection there may be is usually based on the weight of animals, with the heavier (earlier maturing) animals being removed first for slaughter. This means that farmers may be practicing negative directional selection for mature body size. Such a selection practice may have a negative impact on the genetic improvement of the GP herd. This is because positive genetic correlations among weights and litter size traits are common in domestic animals including GP (Quijandria et al 1983b).

Farmers' priorities for raising guinea pigs

Workers in Latin America (Loetz and Novoa 1983; Huss and Roca 1982; Chauca de Zaldivar 1995) reported that economic gains, rusticity and the low-cost of GP production may be among the encouraging factors for smallholder farmers to engage in GP production for meat.

A second survey was conducted to determine farmers' priorities for rearing this domesticated rodent (Nuwanyakpa 1993). In that survey farmers were asked to rank in declining order their reasons for raising GP (Table 2). Respondents were given a list of six possible choices. In completing the survey they added two other points.

From responses 1 and 4 it can be concluded that considerable quantities of GP are being used for food by some farm families and others in towns and villages. Unfortunately many farmers who have been raising GP even for several years indicated that neither they nor their families or neighbors consumed GP. About 58% of the respondents indicated that they have never eaten GP meat. The remaining 42% claimed that they had eaten GP meat at least once (Nuwanyakpa 1993). Therefore income generation (response 2-4), instead of nutrition improvement, is presently the highest priority for GP rearers.

The data therefore suggest that, in order for GP consumption in Cameroon to be boosted above current levels, development agencies will have to devote the same intensity and organization to executing nutrition education and other village and general public awareness programs as HPI did to popularize the production consumption and other benefits of rabbit and dairy products in rural and semi-urban communities in Cameroon. Huss and Roca (1982) stressed that in order for such a sensitization campaign to succeed housewives had to be taught how to prepare GP meat into various dishes. Education programs will have to be launched to create a broader consumption habit beyond the farm family level and training and extension programs will have to go beyond purely production issues to nutrition education at the family and village levels, as well as public awareness campaigns targeting schools.

One interesting observation is that many farmers use GP to fend off rats from their rabbit sheds and to help clean the sheds. This integrated practice indicates that GP production can be a good complement to rabbit keeping. Guinea pig production can contribute indirectly to benefits of rabbit production. The latter case is because GP depend in part on the feeds and forages that drop from rabbit cages.

Current preference for meats available in the northwest province

The consumption of GP in Cameroon is presently very insignificant. For example in the work reported by Nuwanyakpa (1993), farmers and project staff were asked to rank their preference order for nine types of meats now available in the northwest province. The results of respondents' in declining order of preference are given in Table 3.

The survey results showed that chicken meat was the overwhelming first choice of both farmers and project staff. This was not surprising given that for generations chickens have been, and continue to be, the most widely raised type of animal in most rural areas in West Africa. For farmers, beef was a distant second to poultry. There are presently over 500,000 head of beef cattle in the northwest province (MINEPIA 1993). However, the worsening economic crisis in Cameroon and the high cost of beef (about US $1.00 and $2.00 per kilo at the village and urban levels, respectively) has made this meat unaffordable by many rural families. Primarily on grounds of health conscious issues (eg: higher fat and cholesterol levels in beef) beef was ranked lower by staff than by farmers. Similar explanations account for the ranking of pork by farmers and project staff.

The last place ranking of GP for both farmers and staff (92% of whom had not eaten GP prior to the survey) was also not a surprise given the relative unpopularity and shortage of publicity and education on this type of animal. The low ranking of GP indicates the magnitude of the work that lies ahead as development agencies endeavor to popularize the raising of this high potential micro-livestock species in West Africa.

The relatively low ranking of wildlife was an interesting revelation. Some farmers explained that while they very much enjoyed bush meat the supply is limited, because of the many difficulties encountered in hunting for wildlife. Some of these are the various types of environmental degradation resulting from bush fires and other activities associated with wildlife hunting and the length of time spent away from families and the rest of the community during the uncertain wildlife hunting trips.

The relatively high (second place by staff and third place by farmers) ranking of rabbit meat was another interesting finding. In fact, in some rabbit project villages rabbit meat is now more highly favored than chicken and beef. The high rating of rabbit and the low ranking of game are indicative of the success of HPI's nutrition education and environmental awareness programs in Cameroon. The success of popularizing GP rearing by small farmers in West Africa would be based on such strong nutrition education and other public awareness programs.

Bottlenecks to the rearing of GP by small-holder farmers

In another HPI survey (Nuwanyakpa 1993), farmers were asked why they stopped raising GP or would be discouraged from starting a GP project. In declining order the major factors that have dissuaded, or that could dissuade, them from GP production are presented in Table 4.

Overall it can be concluded that the relative newness of GP production, the appearance of GP (like rats), small size of the animals and lack of nutrition education programs, are major mitigating factors that deter the consumption of GP in rural communities. The same factors may also be responsible for the relatively small and highly seasonal market outlets for GP. Presumably were it not for secondary schools that purchase GP once a year and other farmers that occasionally purchase GP for rearing there would hardly be any markets for GP in Cameroon.

The concern of farmers about the small size of the GP in Cameroon can be appreciated considering the following background. The average adult person that is not pregnant or lactating needs about 56 g of protein daily (Pyke 1975). In rural areas of Cameroon and other developing countries this minimum requirement is often not fulfilled, because high carbohydrate levels and frequent absence of animal proteins are characteristic of the diet. When fully mature (at approximately 8 months of age) a GP may weigh about 800 g (Lukefahr 1984), and given a 65% dressing percentage (Huss and Roca 1982), the average mature GP may yield about 520 g of edible meat. If one GP is killed daily this means that each member of an extended family (with an average of 8 persons) would receive about 65 g of meat or about 14 g of total protein (i.e. 25% of the daily minimum protein requirement). Despite the small size of GP, the dietary animal protein intake can be significantly increased through the regular consumption of GP meat.

Given the small size and limited availability of GP in Cameroon, farmers cannot be encouraged to engage in GP production as the main or sole livestock farming activity. It must be associated with other supplementary livestock activities such as rabbit production.

Future prospects

The direction of GP production by small farmers in West Africa must entail at least the following considerations:

  1. A shift of emphasis from research to development. Published research information on GP under different ecological and socio-economic conditions is needed. The work reported so far on the production of GP under smallholder conditions in Cameroon clearly shows that the raising of these animals is one way for farmers to inexpensively produce meat for home consumption or for sale and that GP manure is a valuable source of organic fertilizer for backyard crop production.

  2. Better coordination of guinea pig development efforts. The level of collaboration between the different professionals and organizations that have undertaken work on GP production in Cameroon has been inadequate. The development strategies of HPI/Cameroon of "growth from within" (ie: starting small and expanding gradually on the basis of success and proven experiences), capacity-building of project participants (including farmer leaders or motivators) and the implementation of interagency development collaborations, could be adopted for better coordination among development agencies desiring to promote better smallholder GP production in West Africa.

  3. Studies on comparative advantages of livestock enterprises. On-farm studies on the comparative advantages of small livestock projects such as GP poultry and rabbits should be conducted. Prolificacy, mortality, rate of growth, cost of production, marketability (after some effective nutrition education and other public awareness programs) and other biological and economic factors should be considered in such on-farm studies. Recommendations for widespread smallholder GP production in West Africa should be based on the results obtained from such studies.


The long-term and detailed work that has been done on GP production by rural farmers in Cameroon has widespread applicability to other countries in West Africa. Smallholder GP production has a promising future as these animals can make a major contribution to rural agricultural development and food production in Cameroon. However the cited studies confirm field observations that the management of GP by small farmers is rudimentary. Some of the constraints are:

  1. Inadequate feeding (especially qualitatively);

  2. Poor housing (scavenging on unenclosed floors where GP are prone to predation);

  3. Uncontrolled mating (postpartum mating and inbreeding);

  4. Lack of reliable and profitable markets;

  5. Low consumption of GP meat in farm households villages and urban and semi-urban areas;

  6. Slow growth rates and small mature body size of the local strain of GP;

  7. Absence of development assistance for smallholder GP production;

  8. Absence of comparative studies (taking socio-cultural economic and biological factors into consideration) on GP and other farm stock raised by small farmers

  9. Low level of general public education on the roles that GP could play in rural agricultural economies.

The GP is projected to make significant contributions to global efforts connected with the alleviation of hunger (especially protein deficiency) and poverty in West Africa. As such West African governments and research institutions and non-governmental bi- and multi-lateral agencies that support development work in the subregion should build upon the foundation for smallholder GP production that has been laid in Cameroon.


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Received 18 August 1997

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