A reflection from the systematisation of the guinea pig production experience (Peru).

by Ana Tumi Guzmán

In this article, I’m going to share some thoughts concerning a systematisation experience that involved stakeholders with varying degrees of training. I will draw particular attention to the engaging tools used to promote analysis and reflection.

The provinces of Jaén and San Ignacio, in the department of Cajamarca, are renowned in Peru for producing high-quality coffee that is exported to several international markets. Most inhabitants in these areas farm this seasonal crop and their work is particularly intensive during the harvest period between April and September when labour is most demanded. The staggered sale of their harvest is reflected in the income they receive.

Within this context, a development organisation working in the area embarked on a business diversification project to provide producers with additional sustained income as a way of reducing their dependence on coffee production. A participatory consultation process with the coffee growers led to the decision to implement various business types that included the technical production of guinea pigs, to be reared for the local market where there is a high demand that is largely unsatisfied. The guinea pigs, also known as cavy, or cuy/cuyes in Spanish, is a domestic rodent species, the result of a millennia of cross-breeding several species in the Andean region of South America.

After the project had been running for two years, the development organisation suggested carrying out a systematisation of the experience of producing guinea pigs in order to extract the main lessons learned from the experience of these coffee producers who were now also guinea pig producers, having transitioned from family rearing to commercial family rearing.

The systematisation was led by an external facilitator, who used different tools to reproduce and order the experience, its achievements and difficulties, deepening the analysis of the processes behind the results.  This required the use of different tools that were specific to the different stakeholders involved: members of the technical team, authorities, producers, etc., encouraging a critical, and in particular, self-critical, analysis of the process experienced. In addition, the institution had a special interest in analysing the impact of the business on the family economy and the sustainability of the initiative.

Prior to the field work, initial meetings were held with the person in charge of the project and it became clear that the business had not met the objectives set out in terms of the number of producers that should benefit from the business. Furthermore, due to the pandemic situation that significantly affected the area and paralysed the institution’s activities, the producers had only just started to use their sheds the month before the project end, and this meant that marketing-related information could not be analysed.

For this reason, it was decided that the impact analysis would not be limited to analysing only the commercial success of the business, but also the changes to social dynamics in the group. It would also focus on qualitative changes which are not always taken into account but which can be key to achieving the desired sustainability. A tool shared by peers from Techo Ecuador at the First Gathering of Participatory Evaluation Experiences in Latin America, held in Quito in November 2019, was therefore adapted and used with these families.

The participants were presented with a board featuring a race track and had to choose a figure that represented them at the beginning of the experience (initial situation) and another to represent them at the end of the project (current situation).

They also had to position this latter figure at the place in the race where they considered themselves to be currently in relation to the goal. These figures were diverse and included animals and means of transport. The tool was also adapted by asking them to place dark markers to symbolise problems or stumbling blocks along the way and bright markers to represent the achievements or ‘gold nuggets’ they discovered despite the obstacles.

While it was clear that there was still a long way to go in this ‘race’, ‘…because we are not selling yet, we will reach our goal when we make money from our guinea pigs’, we were able to source strong reasons for the setbacks in the ‘race’. Rich experiences were extracted from the experience, providing hope for future rearing once the project ends. These included friendship ties and cooperation in the group; reliable technical support; the feeling of satisfaction for having kept going in spite of the setbacks; the feeling of belonging to a trailblazing group pioneering the technical raising of guinea pigs in their district; and being references for other breeders, even beyond the boundaries of their district.

All this was shared among laughter, jokes and plenty of idea exchange, encouraged by an engaging tool that helped break the ice and that, by emulating reality, reconstructed the process experienced, critically analysing it, and obtaining lessons that came from exchanging views and discussion. It should be stressed that the tool was especially suitable for people from rural areas that are not used to writing and do not need to for any of the technical work or logistics involved.

We also invited some people to the workshop who were involved at the start of the project but had not continued. Their opinions were highly important so the supposed reduced scope of the project could be better understood. Although they actively participated in the exercise, we have later wondered if it would have worked better had they carried out the activity separately, with their own board and figures.

Finally, we want to highlight how difficult it can often be to remove ourselves from a purely technical way of perceiving a project. I, in particular, as a zootechnician, held a very critical perception of the model put forward by the institution to start this business. Had it been a traditional evaluation and not a systematisation with high levels of stakeholder participation, we would have focused on comparing indicators and quantitative goals, and the rich experiences of these families would have remained uncovered. In their own words, ‘We began slowly, slowly, like a tortoise…we still have a way to go but we are on the right track now, pedalling our bikes to the top’.