Hivos Open Source Seed Systems Award and the Kenya Climate Innovation Center Mentoring Program

By Jason Farr, visiting intern from American University, Washington, DC

Seed Savers Director, Daniel Wanjama, with KCIC mentor, Tom Kore, in from of Seed Savers Network's office
Seed Savers Network Director, Daniel Wanjama, with KCIC mentor, Tom Kore

In February of 2017 Seed Savers Network (SSN) participated in an open source seed system (OSSS) enterprises pitching event hosted by Hivos, a Netherlands based NGO featuring OSSS businesses ideas from around the globe. SSN won first prize for most innovative business idea for open source seed enterprises. According to Hivos, “The distinctive feature of ‘open source seed’ is an express and explicit commitment—legal and/or ethical—to maintain freedom to use the seed and any of its derivatives.”

SSN’s pitch was to create a tissue culture laboratory to clean and multiply farmers’ seeds and serve as a cold storage gene bank for local varieties. This event introduced SSN to the Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC), who participated in the event as judges as well as scouts for the agribusiness ideas relevant to KCIC. SSN won in the category of most innovative OSSS enterprise idea for incorporating conservation of local varieties in a seed bank as well as improving the access to vegetatively propagated materials seeds to small holder farmers. For winning in this category, SSN was offered an opportunity to work with KCIC for one year as part of the KCIC mentorship program to support new entrepreneurial efforts in OSSS, with the possibility of receiving funding towards the project upon completion. Such funding would help SSN fulfill its goal of developing the tissue culture laboratory budgeted at KSh 5,300,000, allowing SSN to multiply and clean seeds for small holder farmers and to help promote the best varieties of the local plants farmers are growing.

So, what is a tissue culture laboratory and why is SSN planning to develop one? Some crops, like arrow root, cassava, sweet potatoes, yam, and Irish potatoes, are not multiplied through conventional seeds. These vegetative propagated crops require a tissue from a parent plant to be replanted for asexual reproduction, and can be multiplied through tissue culture. A tissue culture lab will allow SSN to multiply these crops for farmers to improve seed access. Through this process, one potato can produce an indefinite number of additional potato seeds.

However, if these cultures contain fungi, disease, or other impurities, it can have a devastating effect on a crop. For example, Irish potato is the second most important starch crop in Kenya after maize, but many of these crops have become infected with bacterial wilt disease that is spread through seeds. Because farmers cannot identify which seeds are infected, they must buy seeds or have their seeds cleaned to screen for diseases. If they do not, the use of diseased seeds can result in the loss of a whole crop. This is why seed cleaning is an important component of the laboratory. Seed cleaning will eliminate these elements from the seeds allowing for the rapid multiplication of clean seeds for the farmers working with Seed Savers.

Seed Savers Network Staff with Tom Kore during a mentoring session
Seed Savers Network Staff with Tom Kore during a mentoring session

As part of the award, Seed Savers is working with a mentor provided by KCIC to enhance the social entrepreneurship component of Seed Savers work to help ensure the success of the tissue culture laboratory, as well as to improve practices in ongoing entrepreneurial activities, like the sale of avocado trees and portable soil testing. The six-month long mentorship program requires six one-on-one meetings with Seed Savers mentor, former banker Tom Kore, as well as six meetings with Mr. Kore and another entrepreneur for group mentoring. According to Mr. Kore, “the overall objective of business mentorship is to motivate and guide the mentee in identifying and closing the gaps in his/her business that will enable him/her to establish sound business practices that will lead to better performance in terms of increased growth in sales, revenue, profits and market opportunities; efficient and effective business systems and internal controls; and an enhanced decision making process. At the of the day, an entrepreneur who has gone through mentorship stands a better chance to steer his/her business towards greater prosperity and sustained growth.”

As a community based organization largely reliant on donor funds, such entrepreneurial activities are designed to offer helpful services and products to farmers while providing Seed Savers with supplemental funding to support the work of promoting biodiversity and ecological agriculture through its work with small farmers around Kenya. Through the mentorship  program and possible support from KCIC, SSN could be in a position to build its own tissue culture laboratory that would prove transformative for the organization and the farmers SSN works with.

Saving Soils through Portable Soil Testing

By Jason Farr, visiting intern from American University, Washington, DC

Soil degradation is a major environmental challenge in Kenya and has a disproportionate impact on small farmers who depend on the soil for their livelihoods. According to Mulinge et al. (2015), 12 million Kenyan’s live on degraded lands and many experience lower agricultural productivity as a result. In fact, between 1981 and 2003 cropland decreased in productivity by 40%. In terms of the economic impact, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that about USD 390 million is lost annually due to the degradation of soil and includes unsustainable farming practices, agro-chemical use, and invasive species as among the causes. To help combat soil degradation and to help farmers protect their soil and improve their crops, Seed Savers is now offering soil testing services.

Soil sampling with staff and farmers
Sampling soil for testing

On May 18, 2017 Seed Savers took part in its first soil testing training with more than a dozen local farmers from around Gilgil. The SoilCares Foundation in partnership with the Rabobank Foundation provided Seed Savers with three state-of-the-art portable soil testing devices from SoilCares, the Dutch company that created the device and provides the soil testing platform. SoilCares sales representative, Jacob Gathuru, spent the afternoon training staff and farmers on the technology and allowing the group to test the soil at a local farm.

The SoilCares testing device was developed to be mobile and easy to use to improve access to this technology for small farmers. It uses infrared light to examine the soil and compare it to thousands of soil samples from the region that have been laboratory tested to determine the soil quality for various crops. After sampling and testing the soil the device is paired with a smartphone through Bluetooth technology.

A SoilCares smartphone application allows the data to be sent to their database to be analyzed. Before sending this information, farmers use the application to select the crops they would like to grow or are growing and how much they hope to yield. After the analysis is done, SoilCares returns a report with information on how suitable the land is for the crops selected and on the kind and quantity of inputs that would best help farmers achieve their desired yields. Seed Savers will then work with the farmers to ensure the use of organic input options and ecological farming practices to meet their needs.

Anne Nderit in a red jacket and brown hat smiling at her farm in Gilgil, Kenya
Anne Nderitu at her farm in Gilgil, Kenya

When Anne Nderit, the farmer whose soil was tested during the training, was asked if she would make use of the soil analysis, she responded, “Of course I will. It was good, informative.” She believes testing the soil was important because it allowed her to know “what organic matter to improve on” to maintain soil health. She thinks this information can help her increase her yield.

Seed Savers staff member, Lydia Nyambura is excited about the service as well. Lydia believes that “This service will help the farmers we work with who have been farming year in and out having soil and production challenges to improve their farming skills.” Through the application of this service and the promotion of organic inputs and ecologically sustainable farming practices Seeds Savers can do its part to combat soil degradation by helping repair the soil of the small farmers it works with.

If you would like to request soil testing services or learn more about Seed Savers and soil testing with SoilCares, please contact Seed Savers at

Related Resources

Our soil testing  flyer

SoilCares –

SoilCares Foundation –

Rabobank Foundation and Soil Cares Foundation Partnership –

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