The last word: How to empower more women in the agrifood sector?

Investors and venture capital funds ignoring female founders are simply acting to the detriment of their own businesses.  

Earlier this week, I joined EIT Food and hosted an online event focused on encouraging more female entrepreneurs to come up with agrifood solutions across the CEE region; breaking the barriers and challenges making it more difficult for women to embark on an entrepreneurial path in the food and agriculture sector.  

We tried to identify solutions and share best practices that could help include the agrifood aspect in women’s entrepreneurial support programmes and including gender in agrifood entrepreneurship programmes.  

The challenge is enormous. Currently, there are 2.2 million female entrepreneurs in the region, and 20 per cent of them employ staff. At the same time, women receive just one per cent of the capital deployed to entrepreneurs, while five per cent goes to mixed-sex founders and 94 per cent to all-male teams. Futhermore, the venture capital funds investing in the region are predominantly represented by men (at 93 per cent). 

The conclusion is clear—female entrepreneurs are not receiving enough support, not only financial. A recent study produced by EIT Food identifies success factors and barriers within various entrepreneurship programmes that either help or hinder women’s engagement.  

During the online event, I spoke with six practitioners from Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Ukraine and here are my five key takeaways from the discussions that reflect the solutions that could empower more women to set up agrifood businesses. 

Strengthening self-confidence 

Low self-confidence is often the main reason why women do not consider themselves potential entrepreneurs. Almost 30 per cent of female entrepreneurs surveyed by Emerging Europe for the Female Entrepreneurship in Eastern, Southeastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus in partnership with She’s Next empowered by Visa report said they were afraid their business would fail. Roughly the same percentage said that their own financial situation would get worse. 

Women often fear failure, which may prevent them from applying to programmes or taking risks. Addressing this fear and building resilience can strengthen self-confidence. Women need that encouragement to gain belief in themselves and trust in their ideas.  

Training programmes designed to develop positive self-esteem and confidence are essential. Educating women about financial instruments can help increase their confidence. Also, psychological training in programmes to help women overcome mental barriers and build leadership skills. 

Peer-to-peer support, mentorship and role models 

Successful stories, especially ones describing challenges and emphasising motivation and perseverance are vital in attracting more women to the agrifood sector. One of the experts gave an example of a female entrepreneur who started a business at the age of 70 after she retired. This was when she thought she had nothing else to lose. Earlier she thought she didn’t have the skills necessary to run a company. Now, not only is she successful, but also her daughters joined her in the venture.  

Such women are ideal to become mentors and share practical insights and, in that way, help attract more women to the agrifood sector.  

Another expert brought up the example of vulnerable women in Ukraine, including veterans’ wives, who offer peer-to-peer support from existing entrepreneurs.  

Such mentorship and peer-to-peer support is not always about specialised advice but rather about lending an ear to these women or the challenges they are facing.  

Focusing on rural areas  

Women are often the drivers of innovation, especially in rural areas. Leveraging all possible means to reach these women, including building networks to reach remote areas and making the agrifood sector appealing, is thus critical.  

One expert shared a story of a Ukrainian woman who scaled her greenhouse business during the war, started working with retailers, thus showing resilience and the ability to find opportunities even in challenging circumstances. 

Another speaker pointed out the gap in support programmes addressing rural areas and shared a success story of a woman over 50 who started a beekeeping business in a small village and later pivoted to producing honey candies. 

Educating venture capital funds 

One of the experts noted that women tend to have more perseverance and a higher threshold for pain in business, suggesting they are strong and resilient entrepreneurs. Also, women and gender minorities often prioritise sustainability, which he admires. What is needed is more empathy and sensitivity in the sector. 

I would add, quite bluntly, that investors and venture capital funds should also learn that disregarding female founders they are simply acting to the detriment of their own businesses.  

Gathering the necessary data  

Women’s contribution in the agrifood business has been marginalised and often neglected. In the past few years, a lot has been done to support the transition of rural areas toward both greater innovativeness and diversity. Yet, not enough statistics have been gathered to drive that development forward. 

Data related to female entrepreneurship is crucial for several reasons. It highlights the unique challenges and opportunities women face in starting and running businesses. Understanding these factors can lead to better support systems and policies that encourage more women to become entrepreneurs.  

Data helps measure progress. By tracking the number of female-led businesses over time, we can see if efforts to promote gender equality in the business world are working. Data can reveal economic impact and inspire other women. Success stories and statistics show that entrepreneurship is attainable for women, potentially motivating more to pursue their business dreams.  

Photo by Jaelynn Castillo on Unsplash.

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