Guinea pigs bring prosperity to poor women in China

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Guinea pigs bring prosperity to poor women in China

©IFAD/Pablo Corral Vega

Poor women in a remote region of China have built up their businesses and worked their way out of poverty thanks to an IFAD-supported project that has taught them how to raise guinea pigs. The meat from these fast-breeding animals is a delicacy in Chinese cities and the project participants have tapped into these markets. Five years after the project they took part in closed, the women were still reaping the benefits.

In 2002, the West Guangxi Poverty Alleviation Project (WGPAP) started work in some 10,000 poor villages in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (GZAR). It reached about 900,000 poor farmers bringing better educational, health and sanitation services. The project also improved links to markets and increased job opportunities.

Most people taking part in the project were from the Zhuang ethnic minority community. About 60 per cent of them were women. When the project drew to a close in 2008, the number of households living in extreme poverty had fallen from 129,000 to 41,700 – reducing poverty by about two thirds.

Cai'Mei Zhao lives in Tian Deng county. She was one of the many poor women who took part in the project. She enrolled in technical training and visited other counties and provinces to learn new skills – one of which was how to raise guinea pigs. In 2004, she received a small loan of CNY 5,000 (about US$800) from the project to start her business. Using the funds as seed money, she purchased 50 breeding pairs of guinea pigs. She also bought cages and other equipment with her own savings.

Things were not easy at the beginning. Zhao had to learn how to tackle unfamiliar animal diseases and financial constraints nearly forced her to close her business. 

"At this time, the project lent a helping hand again," recalled Zhao. The project mobilized financial and technical support from the county government and Zhao enrolled in the rural microfinance project. She received another CNY 10,000 (about US$1,600) to finance operations on her farm. The county veterinary services sent a mentor to the farm, providing vaccination, sanitation and basic knowledge on how to prevent animal diseases.

In 2006, her farm started to earn a small profit and Zhao started to explore additional markets, including supermarkets, restaurants and other potential customers.

"At the beginning, people were a bit surprised when a women came to sell farm products, which mostly is the job of men," she said.
Today, Zhao has customers across GZAR and beyond. Guinea pig meat from her farm has become a delicacy in cities like Nanning and Guangzhou.

Zhao invested most of her earnings in her business to increase the scale of production. Her farm continued to grow, as did her fame as an independent woman entrepreneur who worked her way out of poverty. Rural poor women came to her, from GZAR and other provinces such as Si Chuan. They came to learn guinea pig raising skills. More importantly, they found a model that inspired them to live a life of their own with confidence.

Although the project finished work in 2008, Zhao's story wasn't finished. In 2013, five years after the project closed, she opened a guinea pig raising cooperative. Its members are women from her village, neighboring counties and provinces. The size of the farm has grown from 100 guinea pig in 2005 to 10,000 eight years later. Having gained confidence and experience, Zhao is now planning to expand her business to more places in China.