GRASS CEILING Living Lab Sweden second and third meetings with women rural innovators

The Swedish Living Lab held its second meeting September 4th at our participant Sandra Levinsson’s farm café – Flättinge Gårdscafé – which she pursues on her family farm with her two sisters. The Lab’s co-leads Siv Lindén, Hela Sverige ska leva, and Dr Katarina Pettersson, SLU, led the participants to discuss how the women pursue their various rural and farm businesses. The participants prepared short presentations of their businesses, motivations, support – and then shared their experiences of their business development, including reflections on conditions and difficulties for development. For lunch we were served a lovely vegan burger produced of lupin beans grown at the farm.

The co-leads also led a focus group discussion with the women on innovation. We discussed if they do view themselves as innovators and what comes to mind when thinking about the concept ‘innovator’. For some of the women the general opinion is that an innovator is someone who invents something brand new, and that the women in the focus group rather are ‘entrepreneurs’. The concept of ‘innovation’ is associated with technology. For others being an innovator is the same as being an entrepreneur: which is about having an open mind to absorb new ideas on how to improve how they work and to have goals for what they do, and to become more effective – that this is what it means to be an entrepreneur. The women discussed that they have established rural companies that focus on other things that traditional farming, which could be seen as innovations only that they are unable to see it that way. The understanding in the group was that women and couples, to larger extent than men alone, establish new kinds of companies in rural areas, in particular in tourism and hospitality, and in the horse industry.

The third Living lab meeting was performed November 14th at Emma Hartelius’ farm – Grimstorps Gård – where she is producing ecologically certified beef from natural pasture fed cattle. The focus at this meeting was for the participants to get more knowledge on support opportunities in relation to the Regional Food Strategy as well as the Regional Tourism and Hospitality Strategy. We had stakeholders Bella Rådberg from the County Administrative Board in Jönköping; Christina Odén and Katrin Löwe from the Region Jönköping County (A Region is a self-governing local authority in Sweden. There are 21 regional councils each corresponding to a county in Sweden) with us and they presented theory work and available support for entrepreneurship and innovation. The participants engaged in feed-back and discussions on how their businesses can be better supported. At the workshop a couple of the participants also presented their businesses, as they had not had the opportunity to do so previously. Elin Skörde also presented her experiences from representing the Swedish team in Brussels for the show case event in September.

The fourth Living lab workshop is planned to take place February 6th, 2024, with a focus on business advice and support, and where a couple of stakeholders will be invited.

GRASS CEILING LL Biodistretto delle Lame at “CIHEAM Bari Mediterranean Innovation Week”

The eight women innovators of the Living Lab ‘Biodistretto delle Lame’, one of the 9 LLs of GRASS CEILING project, were invited to participate to the activities of the Mediterranean Innovation Week, held at CIHEAM Bari on 22-24 November, with the participation of many actors of the local innovation ecosystem and various international experts and organisations.

The eight women innovators of the Living Lab ‘Biodistretto delle Lame’, one of the 9 LLs of GRASS CEILING project, were invited to participate to the activities of the Mediterranean Innovation Week, held at CIHEAM Bari on 22-24 November, with the participation of many actors of the local innovation ecosystem and various international experts and organisations. You can take a look at the video of the Mediterranean Innovation Week here.

Two women shared their innovation journey in a public panel contributing to a debate on ‘Creative Entrepreneurship 4 Mediterranean Rural Resilience’ (panel 1) during which GRASS Ceiling project was also presented.

One LL participant also took part to B2B matching event seizing the opportunity to get expert advice on digital marketing and innovation design.

A small exhibition of products and services of the LL Biodistretto delle Lame was set up.

The exchanges held during the week have also inspired the two LL co-leads, CIHEAM Bari and Legacoop Puglia, to replicate in the near future some activities to specifically address LL participants’ needs relying on the services and network of the ewly inaugurated Mediterranean Innovation Agrifood Hub.

Second Croatian LL EWE (LLHR) held on October 13 2023

The Living Lab Croatia (LLHR) called Eco-Women Entrepreneurs (EWE) held its second meeting. It was organized by the University of Zagreb Faculty of Agriculture and the Croatian Chamber of Agriculture (HPK) and took place on 13 October 2023 in Zagreb at the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development.

The Living Lab meeting was divided into two parts. The first part was attended by women innovators (LL participants) and the second part by our innovators and stakeholders.

In the first part, after the introduction to the agenda, the previous and future activities of the project were briefly presented. One of the innovators presented her experiences from the Brussels Showcase event (September 2023).

The first part of the Living Lab meeting focused on the introduction to the innovation process with an emphasis on designer thinking and the double diamond methodology. Three main fears were also discussed: the fear that the idea is not innovative, the fear of criticism and the fear of uncertainty. It was agreed that in the time between Living Lab 2 and 3, each innovator should define a goal for the next year so that each woman’s needs and goals for the next year could be identified and explored.

The innovators identified their needs and/or ideas for future activities of the LL: (1) training on promotion in social networks, (2) the annual event where each woman can present herself and her products, (3) the establishment of an association to support women where Living Lab innovators can advise other women, (4) the development of a logo for the Croatian Living Lab. The need for networking was emphasized in the discussion.

The first part of the Living Lab meeting ended with an inventory of the participants’ activities between two Living Labs and the question of what goals and needs the participants currently have. All women have expanded their businesses or experienced changes in different areas of their lives (from brand registration of products to marriage). Their goals for the near future relate to the further expansion of their businesses. Their needs are mainly related to education and training: communication skills, stress management tools, digital marketing, agricultural knowledge, legislation, accounting basics.

In the second part of the Living Lab meeting, institutions that could provide educational content were discussed and identified together with the stakeholders. The innovators and stakeholders were divided into 4 groups. Discussion within the groups focused on identifying opportunities to meet educational needs. The discussion identified problems with information about different provision at a local level. The information about workshops in remote areas of Croatia is insufficient. The timing of workshops and the terminology used need to be adapted to the needs of rural areas (after 6pm, video material). One group expressed the intention and desire to share their knowledge and experience, pointing out problems with administration at the local level, land leasing, wool thrown into the environment and the idea of including felting in the education system.

The second part ended with the conclusion that the educational workshops (smaller groups) should not last longer than one hour, that the standard Croatian language should be used, that various study tours should be organized, that all educational materials/workshops should be recorded and available, and that the speakers should be experienced practitioners.

Rural Women: community led-innovation and the consideration in the LTVRA

On Wednesday 22 November, the European Economic and Social Committee organised a thematic debate on gender equality and youth in rural areas organised by the Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment Section (NAT).

Blanca Casares, policy expert at AEIDL (European Association for Innovation in Local Development), was invited to present AEIDL’s work in this matter, which includes the GRASS CEILING Horizon Europe project, where Blanca leads the work package on co-creation of recommendations and tools for policy and knowledge and innovation systems that boost women’s role in the sustainable development of agriculture and rural areas.

Women in rural areas of the EU make up below 50% of the total rural population, they represent 45% of the economically active population, and about 40% of them work on family farms. The rate of self-employed women in rural areas is about 38%. Their importance in rural economy is even greater, since their participation through informal rural economy is not statistically recognised.

In her presentation, Blanca reviewed the consideration of rural women in the main policies such as the EU Gender Equality Strategy to 2025, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Green Deal and its Farm to Fork Strategy and EU long term vision for rural areas (LTVRA) by 2040.

In particular, the Council of Agriculture and Fisheries Ministers of the EU, held in Brussels on 20 November, gave the green light to the conclusions document on LTVRA, which advocates the implementation of initiatives that favour the development of these areas and the improvement of the living conditions of their inhabitants.

The Council welcomes the rolling out of the EU Rural Action Plan to achieve the goals of the LTVRA by 2040. It invites all national and regional administrations, local authorities and all stakeholders and communities to engage in the Rural Pact Community Platform.

The Council recognises that women represent a significant driving force for prosperity and social inclusion in rural areas, however they are facing additional challenges and in need of supporting measures to better integrate into the labour market, utilise existing and creating new opportunities for employment and innovation, and participate in decision making; and welcomes, in this respect, the inclusion of gender equality as one element of one specific objective of the new CAP, promoting the equal participation of women in farming and the socio-economic development of rural areas.

In response to the need for improving data collection and the quality of rural statistics, the conclusions underline the importance of expanding the EU Rural observatory, to municipal-level and, to include sex-disaggregated data and other types of functional areas, to inform the design and development of evidence-based and relevant rural policies.

Recent policy briefs published by AEIDL «Women in Rural Development: Integrating a gender dimension into policies for rural areas in Europe» as well as «The role of women in rural development and innovation« or «Women for a sustainable future of European rural areas» detail the main challenges for rural women in relation to the labour market, participation in public decision making, access to services or land. Furthermore, these policy briefs include the need of build statistics segregated by gender as well as region as well as develop more comparative studies on rural women across Europe.

Blanca also spoke about community-led innovation to encourage positive change and generate local socio-economic and environmental welfare. Available a briefing of what we mean by community-led local innovation prepared by AEIDL’s colleagues, among them Serafin Pazos-Vidal, Senior Expert. In 2022, AEIDL launched the European Local Innovation Forum (ELIF) to help drive a pan-European conversation about local innovation, enhance action on the ground, and put them on the EU agenda. 

As part of GRASS CEILING, AEIDL and COPA-COGECA run the European Policy Forum for women-led innovation in agriculture and rural areas and are the coordinators of the EU Rural Pact Community Group on Women in Rural Areas. Anyone interested can join and help bring ideas and good practices to improve the gender dimension of EU rural policies by subscribing here.

Author: Blanca Casares (AEIDL)

Third meeting of the Dutch Living Lab

The GRASS CEILING Project is a three year EU funded project that explores the barriers facing entrepreneurial women in rural settings across nine European countries. A significant part of this project is the Living Labs, in which a group of innovative rural women (eight in the Netherlands) meet three times a year to follow a trajectory guiding them through their own innovate ideas and training them in relevant skills. The learning process is not limited to the women, but also to the facilitators who are studying Living Libs as a concept and its role in facilitating learning.

We (NL) hosted our third Living Lab recently, at the LTO Noord offices in Zwolle. All eight women participants were able to attend and shared progress on their empathy maps. Group discussion and feedback is so valuable in this session and this group have created a strong and supportive bond, sharing suggestions and inspiration. The structure of the Living Labs is as such that stakeholders are invited to share their knowledge with the innovative women. For this session the wonderful Anne Marie van Oldeniel-Boerhof stimulated challenging and emotive topics, focusing especially on the position of family in business partnerships, and giving guidance on how to respect boundaries without losing focus on the topic. The professional input from stakeholders further enrich the Living Lab experience and we are excited to follow the women’s journey when we next get together as a group in February.

Second meeting of the Spanish Living Lab about women and innovation in agriculture and livestock

The main topic of the meeting was the analysis of innovative initiatives by participating female farmers and livestock keepers, their objectives, the support they have received, and the various barriers they face.

Continuing with the task agenda of the European Project Grass Ceiling, the second meeting of the Spanish Living Lab was held, with the participation of eight female farmers and livestock keepers from Castilla y León, Aragón, and Asturias. This time, the meeting took place virtually, and over the course of five hours, discussions revolved around the innovative initiatives of each participant. The research team from the Campus of Palencia at the University of Valladolid and Agri-food Cooperatives were responsible for conducting the meeting.

The innovations these women are implementing are related to improvements in the production processes of their respective farms, as well as other social activities aimed at supporting the visibility of women in the sector, creating networks, and acquiring training and information. The main barriers they face are primarily related to numerous and complex bureaucratic procedures and regulations they must comply with, which reduce the time they can dedicate to productive work. Other limitations are related to gender stereotypes, lack of guidance, connectivity issues, and rural decline, which they also consider significant.

Therefore, the proposed action measures to improve the current situation of women in the agricultural sector are related to continuing education, especially in digitalization, showcasing their work and the experiences of influential women, creating networks of mutual support, improving the living conditions in rural areas, strengthening the support role of associations and cooperatives, and promoting their representation in political and decision-making bodies.

Supporting Women in Agriculture

  • GRASS CEILING Project Coordinator Sally Shortall will participate in a panel discussion titled “Incentivise, Inspire and Include: Transatlantic views on supporting women in agriculture”
  • The event is organised by the Mission of Canada to the European Union, in collaboration with the European Commission DG Agriculture & Rural Development

The event will take place on 27 October from 14:00 to 17:00 CET and will feature a number of EU and Canadian delegates speaking on barriers and opportunities for women farmers and food business entrepreneurs and the welcome address will be delivered by H.E. Ailish Campbell, Ambassador of Canada to the European Union, and Mihail Dumitru, Deputy Director-General in charge of Directorates B, C, D, European Commission, DG Agriculture and Rural Development.

GRASS CEILING Project Coordinator Sally Shortall will moderate the first panel session on the challenges women face in the farming and food sectors. The panel includes Doris Letina (apple farmer from Slovenia, former Vice-president of CEJA), Nuria Alvarez (rural entrepreneur and farmer from Spain, owner of AGROBERRY), Shivani Dhamija (founder of Shivani’s Kitchen) and Alanna Coneybeare (cash-crop and dairy farmer, co-chair of the Canadian Agricultural Youth Council).

The second panel discussion will tackle funds and policies to support rural women and female farmers and will be moderated by Natasha Foote (Euractive), with the participation of Margaret Bateson-Missen (Head of unit, Social Sustainability and Equality Coordinator, DG Agriculture and Rural Development), Moa Vestman (European Investment Bank), Steven Jurgutis (Director General of Policy, Planning, and Integration Directorate, Agriculture & Agrifood Canada) and Heather Watson (Farm Management Canada).

Mary Robinson (Past President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), Vice President of the World Farmers Organisation, and General Manager of Island Lime Inc. and Francesca Gironi (Chair of Women’s Committee, COPA-COGECA) will close the event.

Date: 27 October 2023
Time: 14:00 – 17:00 CET
Free registration available here
Programme available here

Gender equality in rural areas to be discussed during the European Gender Equality Week

  • The Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) of the European Parliament will exchange views on gender equality in rural areas and discuss the state of play and perspective in Europe and beyond.
  • This event is one of the activities organised within the framework of the EU Gender Equality Week taking place from 23 to 29 October 2023.

During the last week of October 2023, the European Parliament holds its fourth European Gender Equality Week. Following the success of the first three editions organised in October 2020, 2021 and 2022, the European Parliament continues this important initiative to highlight its continued efforts to place women at the centre of legislation.

Since the last edition of the European Gender Equality Week, important legislation was adopted: Women on boards, Equal pay, as well as the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention.

There is progress in this policy field, but much remains to be done. Therefore, the topic of focus this year is «Gender Equality: What’s next?». The Parliament and its partners will be looking at what has been achieved so far and what still needs to be done.

All parliamentary committees and delegations, as well as many important partners of the Parliament will hold events addressing gender equality issues in their areas of competence.

On the 26 October, the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) of the European Parliament will exchange views on gender equality in rural areas and discuss the state of play and perspective in Europe, and beyond, with Lauren Philips, Deputy Director of FAO’s Office on Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equality and Marzia di Pastina, winner of the Innovation Award for Women farmers 2023 and member of Alleanza delle cooperative italiane agroalimentare. Here you have all the information to join this very interesting event:

Date: 26 October 2023
Time: 9:00 – 10:00
Webstreaming available here
Programme available here

Besides, on 23 October the European Parliament Committee on Fisheries (PECH) will exchange views with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) on the status of women in agri-food systems with a special focus on gender equality in fisheries and aquaculture. Here you have all the information to join the session:

Date: 23 October 2023
Time: 15:30 – 16:30
Webstreaming available here
Draft programme available here

The Italian Living Lab of the GRASS CEILING project involves local stakeholders building an ecosystem of innovative solutions to support rural women

On 9th October, in Ruvo di Puglia (BA), during the second Italian Living Lab meeting of the GRASS CEILING project, we asked some women engaged in entrepreneurial activities in the agricultural sector, what «innovation» is for them.

«It’s a different crop. It’s the answer to a specific need. It’s knowledge, study and know-how. It means creating an ecosystem.» But also, «innovation is dynamism, explosion and rupture. It’s knowing the tradition in order to be able to transform it.»

These are the answers provided by the network of women innovators, sharing their individual experiences, and personal ideas about the concept of “innovation”. After a brief focus on the meaning of innovation processes, the network opened up to dialogue with some qualified local stakeholders actively involved in innovation and technology.  Representatives of Tecnopolis, ARTI Puglia, Abap, EIT food, PID Chamber of Commerce, Italian RSA and Biodistretto delle Lame took part in the event.

After a brief introduction of stakeholders and participants, the “Empathy Map” marketing tool was presented, in order to think about and discuss customers’ and users’ needs. The Italian Living Lab is run by partners CIHEAM BARI and Legacoop Puglia, in collaboration with the Biodistretto delle Lame. It is an opportunity to create connections between actors and women engaged in agriculture, to generate an agribusiness system that supports the role of women innovators in this historically male-dominated sector.

Supporting rural communities by improving women’s access to financial services

  • The UN theme for this year’s International Day of Rural Women is “Financing for rural women’s empowerment”.
  • 15 October recognises the work of rural women in the food systems of the world, and claims rural areas with equal opportunities for all.

The International Day of Rural Women is an opportunity to celebrate women and girls who play a key role in rural areas, developing innovations in response to socio-ecological challenges and strengthening the resilience of rural areas.

According to the Committee on World Food Security (CFS, 2023), the lack of financial capital and financial inclusion are significant constraints to women’s entrepreneurial activities and engagement all along the food system and value chains, from investment in land to agrifood businesses. Structural constraints to women’s access to financial services such as credit and insurance are often based on restricted access to assets, including land and property, that could be used as collateral for loans; family indebtedness; limited knowledge and training of financial services; restricted availability of appropriate loan products for women led micro, small, medium businesses and smallholders; statutory and customary laws that are discriminatory and/or do not respond adequately to women’s needs and priorities; and negative social norms that prevent women from developing and growing their enterprises and productivity. At the same time, fair and equitable access to financial services is a prerequisite for overall societal economic security and prosperity.

While women often lead on socio-ecological transitions and progressive farming methods, they often face significant discrimination when it comes to land ownership, equal pay, participation in decision-making entities, and access to resources, credit and markets. GRASS CEILING is working with women socio-ecological innovators across nine European countries and facilitating interactions with bank managers, agricultural advisers and entrepreneurial experts, and on the occasion of this International Day the project would like to showcase the women in the Living Labs who are breaking new ground, developing innovations and co-learning through mutual support. They are sowing the seeds for future generations of women to lead rural development and agriculture innovations by sharing their stories on how they have overcome challenges accessing financial services:

Birgit Boljun, owner of Val Madorso olive farm in Istria (Croatia) decided to continue the family tradition of olive oil production and was faced with several challenges when trying to raise the necessary funds. Since the bank could not support her, and she did not have sufficient resources for investment, Birgit looked for other funding opportunities and finally decided to apply for an EU project. Based on her experience, she recommends setting multi-year goals, planning well in advance, making adjustments to be eligible to obtain EU funding, as it usually takes a long time to fulfil the tender conditions, reviewing past year’s tenders to see what is generally needed, continuing the basic work to avoid being left without income until the obstacles are overcome, and not being disappointed when things take longer and don’t go according to plan. According to Birgit, it is important to have a vision and be realistic about physical and financial possibilities and set a series of smaller attainable goals.

Letizia Cuonzo took over the family business Azienda Agricola Cuonzo in Puglia (Italy) and used subsidised finance and bank credit tools to expand and transform the company. The major challenges she faced were related to the lengthy bureaucratic procedures, but she was lucky to count on the support of the bank; in her experience, many institutional entities, even at the regional level, now support women’s entrepreneurship and startups, but nonetheless she recommends trying to secure funds by networking with other businesses and building synergies with competent people and entities who can guide entrepreneurs towards the best solutions. The success criteria for addressing and overcoming the main barriers in accessing financial instruments are, in her opinion: developing financial skills and literacy and being able to engage competent people who can provide advice in fields where their specific skills are needed.

Annalisa Pellegrini decided in 2020 to recover an unused family plot and grow lavender to produce essential oils. Her company, Lavanda Ruvo di Puglia, is also based in Puglia (Italy) and focuses on environmental sustainability and circular economy. In her experience, having had access to technical information on production earlier and more easily would have helped her to optimise the timing of the project. As she didn’t meet the age requirements, Annalisa was not able to use most public funds, and thus suggests exploring these options, especially if own initial capital is not available. For her, having a good business plan helps, as well as support from professionals, who know how to navigate public funding programmes. In her opinion, the fundamental criterion for securing economic resources should be the ethicality of the project, its commitment to the environment, respect for biodiversity, and reliability.

Daiva Šinkevičienė has been running the organic blueberry farm Karališka uoga in Lithuania for the past 10 years. She cultivates 14 varieties of royal berries on a four-hectare plot. Over this time span, Daiva has received 15,000 euro support under a single measure of the CAP. Access to the support is still complicated as the farm is small and it is hard to meet the eligibility criteria for the support measures. The major source of the investments and, hence farm growth, is her own investment. Each year, Daiva allocates 40 % of her income for investments. She considers financial planning, budgeting, and saving as the core elements in achieving the goals of the activities. She provides an example of preventing birds from picking at the harvest, where acquiring a drone appeared to be a viable solution.

Sonja van Uden is the founder of the Landdrift Foundation in the Netherlands and has used her experience as an entrepreneur and manager in various industries and countries to develop a concept for multifunctional land use that promotes biodiversity. In her opinion, it is challenging to access any form of financial services when the innovation does not fit the standard model of economic value creation, which is the case for the multifunctional land use concept of Landdrift. She talks of the difficulty in obtaining funds and raising interest among potential investors in Landdrift, especially when it involves explaining that there is no economic return on investment within the Landdrift concept. She shows inspiring examples of combined land use in other parts of the world and how these projects have created much value for the natural environment and the people in these areas. Sonja suggests refraining from allowing dreams or visions for a better future to be diluted by the difficulties faced regarding access to financial services, and keep searching for the needles in the haystack! When encountering a challenge, she always tries to think out of the box to find a solution and adapt to the situation. A success criterion for Sonja is to stay flexible and open throughout the entrepreneurship journey.

Torunn Hernes Bjerkem owns Bjerkem Farm, an organic farm in Norway growing ancient heirloom grains, making healthy food, healthy soils, healthy plants, and healthy environments. The biggest challenge is that the farm is organised as a sole proprietorship. Because of the old Norwegian property law, where the oldest child in the family inherits the farm (called ‘odel’), any investment in a big project is dependent on the individual; the sole proprietor. For that reason she doesn’t have access to the big funds in agriculture and farming. According to the sole proprietorship system, people wishing to expand their business have to put their farm on the line for bigger loans and investments, which makes them very vulnerable, so Torunn opted for organising the farm into a Limited Liability Company. She considers that people who create jobs in rural areas shouldn’t have to take the risk all by themselves: They ought to be supported by a network where they can find solutions together. This is the case of Øyna Kulturlandskapshotell, a sustainable hotel wedged into nature overlooking the ocean, serving local food and beverages, a project in which owners have partnered with other collaborators so that they can take care of the natural resources, create jobs and livelihoods, and build a dream together.

Marta Llorente manages a family-owned intensive pig farm located in Zazuar (Burgos, Spain), in an integrated system with over 60 hectares of crop land and 20 hectares of vineyards. One of the issues she considers most relevant when embarking upon innovative projects within the livestock sector are the high costs that must be assumed. In her case, she did not have problems obtaining a loan from the bank, but points out the need for a prior analysis of profitability. There are public financial tools, such as subsidised interest loans, but on many occasions these require complying with numerous conditions and bureaucratic procedures, making it challenging to benefit from them. Her recommendation to women looking to make an investment to improve their farm is to conduct an analysis of the expenses and income that the improvement will entail in advance, to assess its profitability. Detailed administrative and financial management of the agricultural enterprise, as with any other business, is essential. The advice of consultants in this field is crucial to assist in making economic and financial decisions.

Further reading

CFS (2023). Voluntary Guidelines on Gender Equality and Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment in the Context of Food Security and Nutrition, agreed by the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Gender Equality and Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment.

FAO (2019). Women’s access to rural finance: challenges and opportunities. Rome. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.