Many questions stimulated creativity at the 4th Italian GRASS CEILING Living Lab Meeting

The 4th Italian Living Lab, held on 11 May at the Officine Culturali in Bitonto (BA), reached a crucial point: the ideation phase.

In the previous stages of this dynamic Design Thinking journey, promoted as part of the three-year multi-actor project GRASS CEILING, eight rural women innovators explored the real needs of users to be involved in their future individual business projects.

It is finally time to step out of the comfort zone and think out of the box! The generation of ideas, in fact, is the beating heart of the method and requires creative efforts. The innovators tried to identify some possible alternatives to better define solutions to the problems detected in the initial context analysis.

During the morning they experienced how there are no good or bad ideas: at this stage the most important thing to do is to create, using specific facilitation methodologies such as the World Café technique.  

After meeting up with stakeholders in discussions around tables, they open the door to their imagination. The output of the activity was a colourful mosaic of ideas and questions to continue the journey in coming months. 

In the afternoon, the working group reasoned about the future through the practice of Foresight. It is certainly not easy to predict the future, but it is still possible to be prepared for what may happen. Through a group exercise, the innovators were able to build a medium/long-term vision, expanding the boundaries of perception.

In the next meeting, the eight participants will focus more on the realisation of their ideas and no longer rely simply on their imagination.

The work was led, as usual, by the two co-leads Legacoop Puglia and CIHEAM Bari, with some local stakeholders who collaborated in the morning activities. They included Mariano Frachiolla, agronomist for the Bio Distretto delle lame, Gianvito Turi, visual designer for corporate communication, Francesca Volpe, local food policy expert for CIHEAM Bari, and Vincenzo Fucilli, professor at the University of Bari.

The GRASS CEILING project is funded by the Horizon Europe programme and runs until December 2025, with several Living Labs held in the 9 countries involved in the European partnership.

The Living Lab is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship and discussion within the working group.

No need to wait long for upcoming activities: the next Living Lab will be held in June. Stay tuned!

The joy of working with animals: Miriam’s story in the GRASS CEILING project

Miriam del Re is the youngest farmer (26 years old) of the Italian Living Lab and one of the eight women innovators who participate in the GRASS CEILING project. She has a degree in economics, but while she was preparing for her final exams, she realised her passion lay elsewhere – with animals. This childhood love has led her to devote herself full-time to their care.

In 2021, Miriam decided to repurpose the disused land on her partner’s farm for raising laying hens. The business began modestly with 50 hens and has grown to include 250 free-range hens, along with goats and turkeys.

Looking ahead, Miriam aspires to open an educational farm to showcase the fulfilment that comes with working with animals. During the Easter break, her “Colle di Seta” and “Uova di Seta” Agricultural Society hosted a fun “Egg Hunt” event for curious children.

The event tagline playfully stated, “Come help us find our hens’ eggs! The rabbit ‘Pasqualino’ was very naughty and hid them!” This light-hearted invitation brought many families to spend weekends with the mischievous bunny. The festivities involved egg decoration, group games, and colourful make-up activities for children and their families.

Miriam was delighted with the outcome. “There was a very joyful feeling,” she remarked, “and seeing the excitement of even the adults in painting the eggs was wonderful. We received very positive feedback from many families who requested more events like this one.”

Well done, Miriam!

Letizia Cuonzo, a member of the Italian GRASS CEILING Living Lab, welcomed the students of CIHEAM Bari’s Master programme

Azienda Agricola Cuonzo welcomed CIHEAM Bari students from the Master programme in Open Innovation and Youth Entrepreneurship in the Agrifood Sector interested in learning more about the living lab implemented as part of the GRASS CEILING project. 

By applying organic farming methods, enhancing native olive varieties and using an innovative mill to produce organic oil from Ogliarola and Coratina cultivars, Cuonzo is a true beacon of sustainable agriculture. The company strives to connect theory and practice, bringing together ideas and action through the GRASS CEILING project.

The visit to Azienda Agricola Cuonzo was led by Letizia Cuonzo, a member of the Italian Living Lab for the GRASS CEILING project. Letizia has a background in Modern Literature and Art History studies.  In 2010, she became the owner of the farm previously run by her father with the help of PSR Puglia, a source of regional funding for young people starting agricultural businesses. She participates in the Italian Living Lab as a women innovator thanks to her experience in managing the family organic olive oil farm and processing olives. She is also an olive oil taster.  

During the harvesting and processing season, the farm welcomes schoolchildren and tourists, increasing awareness of production practices and offering basic information for tasting extra virgin olive oil. A few days ago, Letizia hosted the visit from the master’s students to tell them about her professional journey as a woman innovator in the GRASS CEILING project. 

This project involves eight inspiring women from the biodistrict of Lame and is expected to reshape Puglia’s agricultural landscape.

Italian Living Lab holds its third meeting

The third Living Lab under the Grass Ceiling project, which took place on 31 January at CIHEAM Bari, was lunched embracing the idea that ‘building a better world means destroying the old one’.

Seven women innovators, active in the field of open innovation, challenged themselves with exploration and design activities, focusing on the profiles and needs of their target users.

By using teamwork tools such as the Empathy Map and Persona Map, the participants were able to delve into the profiles of potential users of the innovation product and service they intend to develop.

The needs, the interests and even the dreams of the potential users of the innovative product or service pave the way for a broader design thinking process that will take place throughout the three-year course of the project.

After collecting the stories of the personas to address, the innovators, in small working groups, shared their views and concerns in order to better define the “Point Of View (POV) statement” that will help solve their business problems by adopting a creative and empathetic approach.

The users’ attitudes and their motivation, thus, represent the cornerstone of innovation to be promoted within the Living Lab network.

The teams of the two co-leads, Legacoop Puglia and CIHEAM Bari, conducted the sessions in the impressive setting of CIHEAM Bari’s campus.

The Grass Ceiling project is funded by the Horizon Europe programme and will run until next December 2025, with several labs to be held in the 9 countries that are part of the European partnership.

For almost a year now, the LIVING LAB has been a valuable opportunity for the participants to share their experiences of innovation through a direct and active exchange.

EU CAP Network workshop ‘Women-led innovations in agriculture and rural areas’

The EU CAP Network workshop ‘Women-led innovations in agriculture and rural areas’ will take place in Krakow, Poland from Wednesday 17 April to Thursday 18 April 2024.

Women play a vital role in civil society and economic growth in rural areas. They are at the helm of viable farm businesses, and vibrant rural areas and communities. Women are key actors in the rural economy as farmers and other entrepreneurs engaged in off-farm work in multiple sectors. Additionally, women often assume responsibility for the care and welfare of their family members. Yet, despite their crucial contribution, many women suffer from a rather ‘invisible role’, facing numerous challenges such as discrimination and difficulties in accessing the labour market. This situation is exacerbated by the prevalence of rural women participating in informal and vulnerable employment. Often, such employment is inadequately compensated and lacks connections to social protection or pension schemes, which could potentially leave women vulnerable to increased levels of poverty (OECD, 2019).

Women make up 51% of the EU population and, in 2021, 67.3% of all working age women (20-64 years) were employed in rural areas, yet the gender pay gap still stands at 12.7% (Eurostat, 2022). What’s more, in almost all Member States, the gender gap in employment rates is higher in rural areas than urban ones.

In particular, farming is viewed as a male-dominated profession, with women making up 31.6% of EU farmers (Eurostat, 2022). Additionally, women in farming face issues around access to land, training and education, and equal treatment from financial and farming organisations. To counteract this, gender mainstreaming has become an important principle in the CAP. The CAP Strategic Plans (2023-2027) promote the increased participation of women in farming and require a gender equality approach in addition to the assessment of the position of women in agriculture, forestry and rural areas, and the challenges they face.

Various projects, supported by different EU programmes show how barriers to the empowerment of women in rural areas can be mitigated or overcome, with socio-economic benefits through social and other types of innovations. Moreover, women represent a significant driving force for prosperity and social inclusion in rural areas, notably through innovative actions and entrepreneurship. This has been recognised by the European Commission in A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, which is committed to empowering women by supporting gender equality and entrepreneurship in Europe, including rural areas.

Taking into account the above, the EU CAP Network support unit for Innovation and Knowledge exchange | EIP-AGRI is organising a workshop on women-led innovations to demonstrate that farming and rural areas can be attractive places for women, especially for developing their business ideas and applying their innovative approaches.


The overall aim of the workshop is to empower women in farming and rural areas by exchanging knowledge, identifying successful initiatives and projects led by female innovators, and networking.

Specific objectives:

  • Explore opportunities offered under different EU programmes to support women in agriculture and rural areas.
  • Showcase innovative initiatives, businesses and start-ups led by women entrepreneurs in rural areas with a particular focus on innovative farming practices and farm diversification strategies.
  • Identify the needs of and barriers to women entrepreneurs to develop their businesses in rural areas.
  • Promote women-friendly entrepreneurship ecosystems within local rural communities.
  • Activate networking among workshop participants in order to support women-driven innovation and entrepreneurship in rural areas.

The main target groups:

This workshop will focus on good practices of women-led initiatives from EU rural areas, at different stages of development. This includes, but is not limited to, farming, forestry, and environmental productions and services. Other participants that we are looking for include advisors, researchers, representatives from farmers associations, chambers of agriculture, industry, managing bodies, local authorities, press, etc. from across Europe.

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.

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.

The Italian Living Lab starts and takes female rural innovation across the area of Bitonto

The Italian Living Labs of the three-year project “Grass Ceiling – Gender Equality in Rural and Agricultural Innovation System” are led by two partners, an academic co-leader (CIHEAM Bari) and a practitioner co- leader (Legacoop Puglia). The activities will be all run in cooperation with the “Biodistretto delle Lame”, which is collaborating in supporting the innovation processes and connecting it with the territorial dimension and specificities.

The Italian Living Lab of the three-year project “GRASS CEILING – Gender Equality in Rural and Agricultural Innovation Systems” are led by two partners: an academic co-leader (CIHEAM Bari) and a practitioner co-leader (Legacoop Puglia). The activities will all be run in cooperation with the Biodistretto delle Lame, which is collaborating in supporting the innovation processes and connecting them with the territorial dimension and specificities.

The first meeting was held on June 20th in Bitonto (Ba) – Italy, where seven women innovators met to work on their personal empowerment, their own identity as innovators and on how to increase awareness of their role as agents of change.

This was the first Italian meeting of the Living Lab and associated focus group and aimed to foster the empowerment of women in rural areas and contribute to the implementation of the EU Gender Equality Strategy.

Among the participants, there is a diverse group of innovators and enterprises. One owns a farm, another produces lavender. Some own a vegetable garden laboratory and raise 250 chickens, others have a bookshop that organises communities of readers and literary walks in Alta Murgia, near Bari, southern Italy. Another innovator is a cultural worker who advocates for biodiversity, slow tourism, local agricultural production and rural culture. There is also a cooperative member of a rehabilitation community for drug addicts who has set up a vegetable garden to provide young people opportunities of the future; and another participant has a longstanding working experience in care work.

During the session the women worked on obstacles, difficulties, prejudices, and stereotypes by playing with Lego, the bricks used by children to build dreams and be creative. As Katia De Luca, project manager of Legacoop Puglia, said: “they worked on the identity of female innovators through the ‘Lego Serious Play’ methodology, in which they used the bricks to build symbols and metaphors of their own experiences and representations, strengthening their self-awareness as actresses of change in their own contexts and communities”. Patrizia Pugliese, project manager of CIHEAM Bari, added: “we started listening to the voices of women in the Bio-distretto delle Lame, a fertile context of interesting initiatives managed by women, who immediately proved to be open and interested in a critical and participatory discussion on gender issues”. The participants shared needs, suggestions, insecurities and ideas on how to continue the path of innovation and great enthusiasm for the chosen methodology.