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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Farmers In Ghana Grab Opportunity By The Tail by Karen Palmer

In the hands of marketers, pig became the other white meat, Tuesdays were reserved for turkey and buffalo found its way onto the plates of the cholesterol conscious.

Now West Africans are hoping to perform the same kind of image makeover on the grasscutter, a delicacy prized for its gamey flavour, so coveted by connoisseurs that boys selling them stretched out and smoked by the roadside fetch upwards of $30 per animal.

The makeover could be the key to bigger profits, similar to Australian marketers' hopes that "australus" will prove a big seller on menus down under that's the winning name chosen last month after a magazine contest to rebaptize kangaroo meat.

Grasscutter, to the uninitiated, looks like what would result from a drunken encounter between a beaver and a big rat, with coarse, dark hair, a soft pink nose, rather thoughtful brown eyes and a big rat tail.

It is, to be frank, a giant rodent.

Ghanaian farmers, however, see it as a cash cow.

"This is not rat," explains Emmanuel Asamoah, an executive at the Ablekuma Grasscutter Association, a co-operative of about 200 farmers operating on the edge of the capital, Accra.

He stands surrounded by dozens of wooden cages, each containing at least one grasscutter, some with litters. It's feeding time, when dozens of stalks of elephant grass are folded up and pushed through the cages. Asamoah is accompanied by a chorus of "ch-ch-ch-ch" as the grasscutters munch.

"This is a very different animal all together. The hair of the rat is not like this. This animal eats only grass. It doesn't eat dirty things. It's not like a rat at all. This animal is very clean, it doesn't smell," he says.

"It's delicious," echoes farmer Atta Yeboah. "The taste depends on the way you cook it, but if you have antelope or chicken, people would pick grasscutter over all that."

So far, the fledgling grasscutter farming industry prominent in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin, as well as Ghana is mostly ad hoc, lacking the slaughterhouses, processing plants and creative advertising campaigns that have worked wonders for other exotic sources of protein.

But this month, Accra plays host to an international conference designed to flesh out ways to capitalize on a seemingly insatiable hunger for grasscutter meat.

Bush meat garners some $58 million each year through the buying and selling of some 384,000 tonnes of meat. Grasscutter is thought to represent about 30 per cent of that.

Farmers want to boost the breeding stock, trade rearing techniques and sell the tasty critters across the diaspora, not only in open-air markets in the West African sub region, but in grocery stores in places like London and Toronto, where larges numbers of expatriate Africans live.

Farmers also envision the day when grasscutters are sold in meat pies, are even available on grocers' shelves, sandwiched between the canned tuna and corned beef.

Unlike their sewer-running cousins aggressive disease-ridden fighters who are a symbol of filth grasscutters can be so sensitive that the most common cause of death amongst caged 'cutters is stress.

Some are so beside themselves at being caged, they simply give up eating and starve to death.

They're the second largest rodent on the continent, behind the porcupine and, as their name suggests, they eat grass. They hide there too, so most hunters simply wait until the dry season, set the grass ablaze and smoke out the grasscutters.

The by-product is an eye-watering, asthma-inducing haze. Dozens of other animals are killed and many trees are left charred and dead. There's no way to prevent the fires from spreading to farmers' fields, says Atta Yeboah.

"When they set those fires, that destroys the environment."

The start-up costs are so far the greatest hindrance to the spread of grasscutter farming amongst West African farmers. They need to build cages that can cost upwards of $120, and buy supplemental foods, like cassava chips and maize, which can be costly for farmers who usually live hand-to-mouth.

Each breeding grasscutter usually costs around 400,000 cedis, about $52.

But the payoffs are quick, says Ruth Yeboah, an official at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, since grasscutters gestate for only five months and produce an average litter of five.

The sale of even one healthy, 4-kg grasscutter is often enough to pay a child's school fees.

"Grasscutter is a most interesting animal. Almost everything about it is interesting," she says, meaning almost everything about it is exploitable.

The meat can be roasted, boiled in soup, grilled as kebabs, smoked or dried like jerky.

The skin is being explored as flavouring in monosodium glutamate cubes.

The coat could be used, although no one is too sure as what, since it feels closer to porcupine than chinchilla.

Ghanaians also eat the contents of the grasscutter's intestinal tract as flavouring for soup, even though grasscutters eat their own feces. (The animal's diet is so clean, explains one farmer, that their poop is actually like an energy drink, loaded with vitamin B12 and niacin.)

Farmers feed their furry livestock guinea or elephant grass, as well as cassava chips, maize, wheat or rice chaff. They'll often toss in some bones or some oyster shells as well.

"Every second of every day, a grasscutter's teeth are growing. They have to grind them down or they'll get sick and die," says Atta Yeboah. "You have to give them some wood or a broken post. If you don't do that, they'll chew their cage."

Unlike their more familiar cousins, they also demand a clean habitat.

"If you are lazy, don't go into grasscutters," warns farmer Atta Yeboah. "The more you leave the environment dirty, the more harm you will cause."

This article appears in The Toronto Star.

Karen Palmer

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

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