What other animal would serve as a better guinea pig for small livestock experimentation than … a guinea pig? The surprising discovery that rural households in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were raising guinea pigs for food has led to an effort by agricultural research groups to improve the process.

The rodents have proven to be a boon to food security in troubled districts of DRC thanks to their small size, quick reproduction and the ease of caring for them. Since they’re easy to conceal, they escape the livestock looting that often occurs in conflict zones. They’re typically fed kitchen scraps, making them great recyclers.

They also provide a much-needed source of protein, and the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT, “International Center for Tropical Agriculture”) aims to help improve production to increase the quality and quantity of guinea pig meat.

Scientists aren’t sure how guinea pigs, native to South America, got to DRC in the first place — but they’re optimistic that the animals could improve the lives of rural families.

“Ultimately it’s about more than just raising livestock,” said CIAT sociologist Wanjiku Chiuri. “For example, many households use the revenue from selling livestock to pay for school fees, which often means that children are expected to contribute significantly to livestock keeping.”

“By improving livestock productivity, the knock-on effects are improved health and the need for children to spend less time collecting forages, which in turn increase the chances of them being able to attend and concentrate on school.”