April 14. 2024. 7:33

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WOMEN IN THE AGRIFOOD INDUSTRY – How cross-gender collaboration impacts a successful transformation of the sector

Agrifood sector contributes to a great extent to climate change – 1/3 of all food purchased is wasted, 1/3 of all GHG emissions comes from the food industry and only 1/3 of the freshwater withdrawals are attributed to other sectors of the economy. We need to rethink our food system and in order to do that in a successful way we should value innovators coming from various backgrounds that will provide unique solutions with mutual respect towards each other’s capabilities, skills and experiences. Diversity is a prerequisite of the innovative food system transformation.

EIT Food is the world’s largest and most dynamic community working to accelerate innovation and build a future-fit food system, aims to overcome the challenges posed among other factors by lack of diversity in the agrifood sector and entrepreneurship ecosystem. The inclusive innovation enabling all people to be involved, is essential to a safe and sustainable agrifood system, which will benefit everyone. EIT Food is supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union.

The 2023 International Women’s Day brought a chance to talk about equality and its substantial meaning for innovation in agrifood sector. According to European Commission (1) both women and men are involved in agriculture throughout the world, although the roles they play differ significantly by region and are changing rapidly. Gender influences access to productive resources and opportunities, cutting across many assets, inputs, and services—land, livestock, labor, technology, education, extension, and financial services, with women having less access to these across a wide range of contexts. These gender differences in resources and opportunities shape the agricultural sector, both within smallholder agricultural farming systems and within larger commercial systems. Thus, to understand how primary production works, we must understand the gender dynamics within agriculture.

This difficult but very important topic was addressed in an online debate organized by EIT Food on March 8, 2023 with EURACTIV as Media Partner. Among the experts participating in the meeting were: Marja Liisa Meurice, Director of EIT Food CLC North-East, Moa Westman, Gender Specialist at European Investment Bank (EIB), Miro Hegedić, Founding Board Member at Lean Startup Croatia, Giedre Kesiunaite, EIT Food programme’s participant including Empowering Women in Agrifood programme participant from 2021 and Maarten van der Kamp, Director of Education at EIT Food.

The panellists unanimously admitted that there is an undeniable need for cooperation between women and men, using their unique skills in an equal battle for a better agri-food system, especially in times of crisis that Europe has been facing recently.

EIT Food responds to the above in the Empowering Women in Agrifood programme, which aims to provide comprehensive support for early-stage female entrepreneurs in using their potential, providing them with appropriate knowledge and access to a wide network of contacts so that they can successfully set up and develop a sustainable business in the agrifood industry. For the past three years the programme has already supported 260 female entrepreneurs in thirteen European countries. For six months EWA Mentees participate in workshops and dedicated events, while developing ideas under the individual supervision of a professional female or male Mentor. It creates a unique opportunity for reducing negative gender bias by practicing successful communication and learning about each other’s differences and strengths.

It was confirmed during debate by Giedre Kesiunaite, participant of EWA programme in 2021, who highlighted that in the startup world women solve problems differently than men. In this case diversity could bring much more benefits than competing about who takes bigger part in decision making. What is more, according to Miro Hegedić, Founding Board Member at Lean Startup Croatia, which implemented EWA programme in Croatia in 2022 women are more motivated and focused on analyzing risks and target groups of their business ideas. Thanks to that they are able to achieve long term results that bring better outcomes in comparison to brave but often chaotic approach of men. However, let’s imagine combining courage with a well-thought-out plan of action and business development – sounds like a perfect plan!

According to European Investment Bank (2) companies with a gender diverse leadership have greater returns on equity and lower operating costs, among other benefits. What is more, having women in the boardroom and upper management is associated with greater financial returns and lower risk taking. Yet, In October 2021, only 30.6% of board members and 8.5% of board chairs in the European Union as a whole were women, a figure that varies greatly among EU Member States. It may resonate well with the statement of Maarten van der Kamp, Director of Education at EIT Food, who mentioned that there are still many institutional barriers that we need to overcome. What is needed is creativity to realize what are those barriers and how to overcome them. This is a responsibility of us all and this is something that we are all invited to be involved in.

“Gender equality is not a women’s issue, it is a human issue” – said Miro Hegedić. Meanwhile, Marja Liisa Meurice, Director of EIT Food CLC North-East confirmed that we definitely need more programmes supporting female entrepreneurs, but “[…] let’s do that together!”. Especially that Moa Westman, Gender Specialist at European Investment Bank (EIB) highlighted that there is a definite difference between Europe and other countries in terms ofavailability of data about women’s activity in agrifood sector. Europe lacks thereof, which contributes to slower movement towards equality in this area.

The Empowering Women in Agrifood programme is expanding and is being continued in 2023. Countries selected for the fourth edition of the initiative are Estonia, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Ukraine and Turkey. Ten women from each country will be invited to take part in amazing journey and make a change in the agrifood business area. Registration for the countries of the CEE region will be open in April 2023.

Recording of the whole debate is available to watch and listen both on EURACTIV.com (here) and YouTube (here).