Fourth meeting of the Dutch Living Lab

Last week Dutch Living Lab hold its fourth meeting, as part of the EU GRASS CEILING Project. Dutch Living Lab were warmly welcomed to Op den Hoek, the farm of the Liza Simons who shared her powerful story with LL participants. She also grounded in the current moment and encouraged all to see ourselves as part of the ‘bigger picture’ which was enlightening and thought provoking for many.

The women entrepreneurs have come so far in their projects and it is always a treat to hear about their progress. It is clear how much they support one another as a group, and how there is a desire for it to go one further, outside of the meetings. These are 8 fantastic, motivated and talented women. To bring them together in one room, and for the facilitators to be able to share tools and methods to assist them in their projects, is a real joy to see. But the real excitement came when all brainstormed over solutions, per participant. Then you see just how much experience and talent these women have already, and how much they have to offer still. It is wonderful to be part of this progress and to feel the buzz of potential and possibilities.

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.

Derde bijeenkomst van het Nederlandse Living Lab

Het Grass CEILING Project is een driejarig, door de EU gefinancierd project dat de barrières onderzoekt waarmee ondernemende vrouwen op het platteland in negen Europese landen worden geconfronteerd. Een belangrijk onderdeel van dit project zijn de Living Labs, waarin een groep innovatieve plattelandsvrouwen (acht in Nederland) drie keer per jaar samenkomt om een traject te volgen dat hen begeleidt bij hun eigen innovatieve ideeën en hen traint in relevante vaardigheden. Het leerproces beperkt zich niet tot de vrouwen, maar ook tot de facilitators die zich verdiepen in Living Labs als concept en de rol ervan in het faciliteren van leren.

Onlangs organiseerden wij (NL) ons derde Living Lab, op het kantoor van LTO Noord in Zwolle. Alle acht deelneemsters waren aanwezig en deelden de voortgang van hun empathiekaarten. Groepsdiscussie en feedback waren erg waardevol in deze sessie en de groep heeft hun onderlinge band versterkt door suggesties en inspiratie te delen. De structuur van de Living Labs is zo dat stakeholders worden uitgenodigd om hun kennis te delen met de innovatieve vrouwen. Voor deze sessie stimuleerde de geweldige Anne-Marie van Oldeniel-Boerhof uitdagende en emotionele onderwerpen, waarbij ze zich vooral richtte op de positie van familie in zakelijke partnerschappen en begeleiding gaf bij het respecteren van grenzen zonder de focus op het onderwerp te verliezen. De professionele input van stakeholders verrijkt de Living Lab-ervaring nog meer en we zijn enthousiast om de reis van de vrouwen te volgen wanneer we de volgende keer als groep samenkomen in februari.

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.

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.

Dutch second Living Lab meeting and Men’s Focus Group

The second meeting of the Dutch Living Lab was held on 22nd September, organised by Wageningen University and LTO Noord. The 8 women innovators have met again to share their progress since the first meeting. Some had made practical steps in realising their projects such as launching a social media platform, hosting open days on their farms and making valuable contacts. Others had spent time considering their position within existing businesses and finding a space for themselves to move forward. All of these actions – big or small – were great to hear about. These are such personal journeys that the women are undertaking that sharing their experiences with the group is clearly an important part of this process and one that was welcomed by everyone. The latter part of the meeting focused on constructing their ideal ‘customer’ with an empathy map and getting feedback or exchanging ideas. We were also lucky to have Yolanda de Prado from Escaperoom Hof te Langelo who told her inspiring story as an entrepreneurial women and gave us some hints on how to get through this journey. All in all, it was a positive day and all participants are excited about what the next Living Lab meeting will bring.

The men’s focus group was held on 28th October to discuss the role of entrepreneurs in rural enterprises. Specifically, they spoke of motivation, barriers and support for rural entrepreneurs and whether they perceived any differences between male and female innovators within this sector. The Dutch Living Lab is grateful to have been joined by 5 skilled men who shared their open, and at times reflective, experiences. The findings from the focus groups (men and women separately) will be used alongside interviews that Sophie Kolewijn-Hopkins has been conducting over the last few months. All this research is part of the analysis about gender equality in rural and agricultural innovation systems within the EU.

Dutch Living Lab holds its first meeting

On 16 June, Wageningen University and LTO Noord organised the first Dutch GRASS CEILING Living Lab meeting. Eight women started their journey to further develop their ideas for socio-ecological innovations in the next three years. There was much excitement within the group as they completed activities and got to know one another. Towards the end of the day, everyone introduced their personal plans that will be followed and curated over the next three years. It was clear from the very start that the women were keen to support one another and utilise their own networks for their colleagues. They are also looking forward to contributing to the GRASS CEILING project with their knowledge and experiences.