A crop variety that is uncommon in Africa 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. The new variety is referred to as Tela maize. 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. ALSO READ: How agricultural biotechnology could boost food security According to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), 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. Through the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), AATF is leading the TELA Maize Project, a public-private partnership that is addressing the problem of drought in maize and destructive insects, specifically stemborers and fall armyworm. 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. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation indicated that Tela maize provides better drought tolerance, protection against stem borers, and partial but significant protection against fall armyworms (FAW). While speaking to journalists at the African Conference on Agricultural Technology (ACAT) in Nairobi, on October 31, the Executive Director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Canisius Kanangire, 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. “And the progress that we have made so far on maize that you call Tela maize, is that currently 80 per cent of the production of maize in South Africa is genetically modified. And soon, we will be having it in Nigeria. And 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. ALSO READ: How drought affected Kayonza farmers' income 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. Nompumelelo Obokoh, a South African who holds a PhD in biotechnology, told The New Times that farmers need agricultural biotechnology because it builds their resilience to shocks including drought. Overall, Obokoh said about 80 per cent of maize production in South Africa is biotech (GMO). “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, but also at households, it means that in terms of income, they are able to sustain their families,” she said.