RWANDA – The Rwandese African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is leading a project aimed at addressing the problem of drought in maize and destructive insects, specifically stemborers and fall armyworms.

Dubbed the ‘Tela Project’, the initiative is a public-private partnership through the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to develop a maize variety called Tela maize.

The word ‘Tela’ is derived from the Latin word ‘tutela’ which means ‘protection’. The Tela Maize Project builds on progress made from a decade of breeding work under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project, according to AATF.

According to AATF, the Tela maize variety is gaining public attention due to its uniqueness. It has the ability to withstand drought, stemborer, and fall armyworm — two significant pests that typically destroy ordinary varieties.

It is known as a transgenic or genetically modified organism (GMO) — in this instance, a crop — as scientists have introduced new genetic traits to enhance its immunity against specific threats. However, the developers assure that these traits are safe for humans.

Maize is the most widely grown food crop in Africa with more than 300 million people depending on it as their main food source.

Its production is, however, severely affected by drought and insect pests, which negatively impact yields leading to crop failure, hunger, and poverty.

While speaking to journalists at the African Conference on Agricultural Technology (ACAT) in Nairobi, on October 31, Canisius Kanangire, the Executive Director of AATF said agricultural biotechnology products are needed in Africa because the continent has many challenges facing the agriculture sector.

These include climate change which brings more drought, especially, and many pests and diseases which are also exacerbated by climate change, he indicated.

“So, in addressing that specifically, we have worked on developing a variety of maize which is first drought tolerant, and then insect resistant; it resists stemborer, it resists fall armyworm. And this will shield the farmer against the loss of the harvest,” he said.

Kanangire intimated that other African countries have made progress in Tela maize pointing out that currently, 80 percent of the production of maize in South Africa is genetically modified. And soon, we will be having it in Nigeria.

On the queue, there is also Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Kenya. We hope that soon, the environment will be clear so that we can have the same product in the hands of the farmers,” he observed.

Sylvester Oikeh, TELA maize project manager at AATF, said maize is a major staple food crop in Africa as almost a third of its population depends on it, estimating that if the crop is not protected against fall armyworm, Africa can lose as much as 20 million tonnes of maize annually, enough to feed 100 million people.

He said that AATF negotiates access to this technology royalty-free so that it is accessible to African farmers in an affordable manner.

South Africa grows Tela maize. We are grateful because it means that our small-scale farmers can now use these advanced technologies to feed the population of South Africa,” said Nompumelelo Obokoh, a South African who holds a Ph.D. in biotechnology.

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