Women are integral contributors to the global food system. Despite being the backbone of small-scale agriculture and food production, as well as the driving force behind everyday family nutrition, the magnitude of the female contribution to the global food value chains is only just beginning to be recognised.
Given women's crucial role in food production and provision, any set of strategies for sustainable food security must address their limited access to productive resources. This access, if put on a par with men’s, would raise the productivity of farms by 20 to 30%, increasing agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5 to 4%, and lowering the number of hungry people by 12%. In a world where almost one in 10 (9.8%) in the global population experience hunger, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), empowering women and reshaping their role in the food system is vital.
The Women’s Networking Breakfast at Fi Europe 2022 brought together a group of influential women from across the food industry in Paris last December to discuss the challenges, benefits, and opportunities associated with the female contribution to the global food system.
There is a disconnect between the manufacturers and buyers of food
When it comes to food purchasing decisions, women are very much in the driver’s seat. According to FAO estimates, women are responsible for half of the world’s food production (rising to as much as 80% in most developing countries), and over 80% of food purchasing decisions globally.
Yet the percentage of women in management positions in the food industry is low, ranging from anywhere between 9 and 25%, depending on the part of the food chain in question. Despite being the target audience for most food and beverage products, women are often excluded from the design and marketing processes.
“[Today], there are huge discrepancies between who is designing versus who is buying food products. If all startup founders, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists (VCs) are male, we create a natural bias in our whole consumer ecosystem too,” said Mathilde Jakobsen, CEO and Co-founder of Fresh.Land, a Danish startup using technology to shorten the supply chain from farm to fork.
Empowering women as the designers and producers of food products, not only the buyers, would establish new patterns of consumer behaviour within the industry. According to Eléonore Lafonta, associate at Paris-based venture capitalist operating in the food industry, Five Seasons Ventures, women today typically prioritise sustainability, health, and convenience when making food purchasing decisions.
Chhavi Jatwani, head of innovation & design at Italian not-for-profit organisation, the Future Food Institute said: “Women culturally are the target when it comes to shopping patterns – they are the deciders and feeders […] it is important to think of the nuances [between women] when the considering drivers [of food purchasing decisions]. But we also need to lift up men and educate them on how they can take on this role.”
We need to reframe the role of women in society to encourage entrepreneurship
Women are also underrepresented as entrepreneurs and founders in the food industry. Less than 5% of the largest (by revenue) 500 companies in the world are female-led, the latest Fortune 500 list shows. Unsurprisingly, the 10 largest food and beverage companies globally are also all run by male CEOs.
Additionally, a report by Women in VCs, a European group of female VCs, found that despite record-breaking growth in European startup investment in 2021, only 1.8% of capital went to all female-led teams and 9.3% to mixed gender-led teams. This may be partly because women entrepreneurs are much less likely than men to approach VCs to request funding, Lafonta said.
“So, what can we do? We need to drive diversity agendas as VCs, ensure that the funnel of entrepreneurs coming into the organisation is diverse, and partnership with women-dedicated networks and funds.”
On a wider scale, transforming the popular narrative surrounding women in business and establishing societal customs and norms that align women with entrepreneurship could empower women to act and increase their power within the food system.
“Yes, we need to act on the now, but it is also a matter of culture and education. Women have less risk-taking capacity than men because traditionally, they have had to provide for their family. [This has established] societal customs based on masculine patterns that we now need to redesign based on female systems,” said Jatwani.
Technology and a multi systems-level approach can help to drive sustainability
From the field farmer to the household chef, women are active stakeholders at all stages of the food value chain. A key challenge exists in aligning these diverse actors to incite sustainable change via a coordinated approach.
Creating a culture that is open to change and where innovation can thrive not only at a product level, but also at a systemic level, is vital in achieving this transformation, according to Jatwani.
“A lot of the work we do at the Future Food Institute is driving more holistic, systemic thinking and accelerating small scale experimentation to drive change. We have three levels of change: education, community, and innovation. We start by creating learning environments that lead to learning communities, and then emergent innovation,” she said.
“We need to create a culture that can create the right innovation and create the right innovation that can be accepted in culture. [This means] more systems thinking and more acceleration of experiments at scale.”
Technology also has an important role to play in accelerating this change, by increasing transparency and strengthening partnerships between actors in the food system.
Jakobsen said: “A lack of transparency is what’s wrong with the old system as the consumer doesn’t know what they’re buying, and the farmer doesn’t know how to get their food to market. Tech is what can bridge the people developing products with the consumers.”