GUINEA pigs may be a cuddly family pet in Australia, but in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa they are often the only source of protein for poor households.
The meat has been widely eaten in South America for centuries but it has only recently been discovered that many poor African families also eat the animals, known in the region as cavies.
The taste of the meat is compared with chicken but its protein content is more than 20 per cent higher.
A project funded by AusAID and delivered by the BecA Hub and CSIRO partnership is studying the production system of cavies and aims to increase both the productivity and nutritional value of the animals.
Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast are large consumers of cavies. In Tanzania, it is estimated that up to 80pc of households keep cavies in their backyards or kitchens.
Senior BecA scientist Appolinaire Djikeng has eaten cavy since his childhood in Cameroon and recognises its importance as a nutritious food and a source of income.
"You don't invest a lot to own them, they have a very short cycle, and breed very fast. You can use them to get an income to pay for small things like pencils," he said.
Dr Djikeng appreciated the Australian government's funding of new projects, including those working on the use of alternative livestock to enhance food security in Africa.
"We had the flexibility to bring up some of the issues which are extremely important but have been neglected for a long time. One of these is cavies," he said.
International Centre for Tropical Agriculture forage agronomist Brigitte Maass, who is also working on the project is confident that by feeding a higher-quality ration, cavies can grow to larger carcase weights.
"They are often running around the kitchen and hand-fed vegetable scraps, but they are usually under-fed which means they don't really produce lots of meat," she said.
"The small animals would now be about 400 grams but if we feed them better we could get 800g by two or three months of age."
Dr Maass said many households in countries, such as Congo, ate meat only once a month and when they did, had to share one or two cavies with up to eight family members.
She said it was essential for young children to eat sufficient amounts of meat as it would help them grow up into healthy adults and eventually, break the cycle of poverty.
"Meat provides Vitamin B12 which is important for cognitive development," she said.
"If children do not eat well their brains do not develop and then they can't get a good job."
* More in SJ's Jan 5 edition