Farming grasscutters in Ghana

The cane rat, a large, blunt-nosed version of its urban cousin, looks docile enough. But it has a taste for fingers. “You need skill to be able to handle them,” says Francis Ababio, who teaches students how to rear the rodents, also known as grasscutters, at Kwadaso Agricultural College in Kumasi, Ghana’s second city. Grasscutter meat is a delicacy in the country’s cities and a part of rural diets. Digested grass found in its stomach is also said to make delicious soups.

Most grasscutter meat still comes from the wild. But conservationists and officials are trying to curtail bushmeat hunting because of concerns that it is wrecking the environment and upending food chains. The Ebola outbreak in 2014 dented demand, but some 579m forest mammals, from monkeys to porcupines, are eaten every year in central Africa, according to the UN. A study by Goethe University Frankfurt found that 39% of forests in the Congo Basin are under severe pressure from hunting.So governments are trying to domesticate wild animals. Take the grasscutter. Since at least the mid-1980s, officials across Africa have urged people to farm it. A decade ago a study by Germany’s development agency counted more than 1,500 such farmers in Ghana. But the rodents are difficult to raise. A project by the University of Ghana and Kyoto University has handed out 183 grasscutters to 49 farmers in Ghana since 2014. Those have produced more than 200 babies, but nearly half of them have died. Some could not tolerate the cold harmattan winds that blow down from the Sahara. Others got stressed and rammed their heads into cage walls.

The academics are now trying to sequence the grasscutter’s genome, in the hope of breeding more docile animals. But farmers already consider the rodent an expensive investment. Rabbits are pregnant for just one month and can be sold for meat when they are two to six months old. Grasscutters, by contrast, take up to 13 months to mature and five months before they give birth. Farmers are also undercut at the market. In the crowded centre of Kumasi women selling the hairless carcasses of wild grasscutters quote prices between 30 and 55 cedis ($7-12). Mr Ababio says the cage-raised sort are sold for 80-120 cedis.

Grasscutter connoisseurs also claim that the wild animals, because they eat a wider variety of grasses, are both tastier and better for you. “Why would someone pick an animal God has created to be wild…and feel that they can cater for them?” asks Afia Ajyeman, who has been selling grasscutters in Kumasi for 60 years. She refuses to buy from farmers.So it is no wonder that efforts to push bushmeat hunters into other livelihoods seem to be making little headway. A review of such projects by the International Union for Conservation of Nature concluded bluntly: “In short, we do not know how effective they are.”

The Economist, September 2nd, 2017

 
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