Hivos International

Open Source Seed Systems

If we want to have more choice at the marketplace or supermarket and eat a healthier diet, we need to diversify our food by ensuring that farmers have access to seeds that enable them to develop and grow a wide variety of crops. However, the current trend of large-scale mono cropping is taking us in the opposite direction. Seed diversity does not occupy a significant place within the business models of the largest seed companies. And by using intellectual property rights (patents, Plant Variety Protection), the big players in the seed industry are eradicating seed-saving and sharing practices, diminishing the gene pool and thus reducing the world’s food security.

Hivos believes in the importance of farmers’ access to diverse and ecologically adapted seeds and the need to prevent exclusive and monopolistic rights on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and associated practices and knowledge.

Hivos’ Open Source Seed Systems (OSSS) programme aims to reverse this trend by promoting the freedom to use seeds and stimulate breeding, diversification and resilience.  We support concrete initiatives, learn what works and use the results in our lobbying and advocacy for change.

Promoting diversity

Hivos has long promoted agricultural biodiversity as a fundamental strategy for food security and climate change mitigation, as well for generating an income.  Community seed banks, participatory plant breeding and selection, and enhanced farmers’ seed production are some of the innovations being supported at multiple scales to maintain active use and regeneration of genetic diversity on farms and on our plates.

Hivos together with Oxfam Novib also stood at the inception of the agricultural biodiversity community, a worldwide network of practitioners and researchers collaborating to increase the diversity of plant genetic resources available to farmers.

Open source seed approaches

Increasingly, Hivos together with breeders, farmers, and others concerned with seed systems, has felt the need to develop an alternative system, based not on exclusive intellectual property rights claims, but on protected commons that subvert the IPR system. Inspired by the open source software movement, several initiatives around the world have established variations of open source seed systems. Breeders declare their seeds open source, and farmers and consumers support the search for well-adapted varieties and tasty crops suitable for current cultivation technologies.   

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. This commitment accompanies the seed and its derivatives through any and all transfers and exchanges.  


It is Hivos’ strategy to work through multi-stakeholder initiatives to support their search for alternatives. Together we build viable business models for open source seed systems, create wider alliances through joint prototyping, research and learning, and we accelerate and scale our approaches through lobbying and advocacy.  The result is an expanding pool of genetic resources that is available now and in the future for unrestricted use by scientists, farmers, and gardeners.

Three strands of activities are central to the programme:  building viable business models for open source seed systems; strengthening an emerging global alliance of breeders, farmers, gardeners and consumers through joint research and learning; and accelerating a shift in public policy orientation through showcasing the strength of national open source seed initiatives that create alternatives.  We invite governments and other stakeholders to join in this global development of open source seed systems .

Current programmes

In East Africa, we work with Bioversity International to enable resource-poor male and female farmers to increase food security and mitigate climate change. During a four-year project period, we will build capacities and increase access to climate-smart crops and crop varieties by establishing viable business models for Open Source Seed Systems (OSSS) in Eastern Africa. We also push for further change in public policy orientation through lobbying and advocacy for OSSS, supported by the Benefit sharing fund of the Plant Treaty (ITPGRFA).

Building open source seed initiatives

With support from the Open Society Foundations we are developing an open source seed programme that will invest in citizen driven open source seed systems and strengthen the capacities of institutions to develop open source seed systems.  We organise meetings (see invitation in right sidebar), seed safaris and social enterprise workspaces in East African countries to move from concepts to application and implementation. We build global alliances with like-minded organisations such as Open source seed initiative US and Apna Beej India. With them and others we are building capacity and promoting open source seeds in Africa and globally, going against the current 'exclusive rights' stream.