When Oluwayimika Angel Adelaja-Kuye started Nigeria’s first vertical farming company she already had years of experience advising governments under her belt - yet as a woman, she still struggled to be taken seriously.
‘In the beginning, even my staff, when they first come on board, are more likely to listen to my husband before me,’ said the founder of Fresh Direct Nigeria, which grows vegetables hydroponically - farming in water instead of soil.
‘These challenges make you hungrier,’ she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Women make up nearly half the global workforce in farming, but many say their contribution has long gone unrecognised, particularly in developing countries.
Adelaja-Kuye is among a small but growing group of women entrepreneurs who are helping to change that, many using new technologies to produce food in more sustainable ways.
The 35-year-old, who started farming in the heart of the Nigerian capital Abuja in 2015 and uses shipping containers, said she wanted to support those who did not conform to the stereotype of the poor, uneducated subsistence farmer.
Four of the six staff at her farm are young women who previously worked as household help.
‘I want young people to see agriculture as a solution for them, one that makes good money,’ she said. ‘If I’m changing the narrative of who a farmer is, I’m happy with that.’
She has that in common with Awa Caba, a computer scientist who co-founded a platform for Senegalese women farmers to sell their produce online.
Caba’s company Sooretul - meaning ‘it’s not far’ - sells more than 400 products from about 2,800 rural women online.
‘My background is not agriculture,’ she said. ‘But it’s more sensitive for me to use my knowledge as a woman to target underprivileged groups, and give them more access and income.
‘My vision is to have a pan-African e-commerce platform where you can find different agricultural products produced by women in Africa.’
Sarah Nolet, who works as a consultant to the agricultural technology industry, said more and more women were getting involved in the growing sector.
‘When you take agriculture, it’s male dominated, and tech is often male dominated,’ said Nolet, the Sydney-based chief executive of AgThentic, which consults on innovation in food and farming.
‘So you would think AgTech would be worse. But we actually see, especially in Australia, a lot of female founders starting AgTech companies.’
Globally, women make up 43% of the agricultural workforce, but they tend to have less access to land, credit, technical advice and quality seeds, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
If women farmers had the same access to resources as men, they could increase yields by 20% to 30%, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said.
But much depends on having the right role models.
‘We have to change mindsets and show women in lucrative, high-value markets, with access to technology, and innovation,’ said Tacko Ndiaye, the FAO’s senior gender officer.
In 2018, companies working on food and agricultural technology globally raised a record $16.9 billion, according to AgFunder, a San Francisco-based online investment platform for these businesses.
Yet estimates based on available gender information show only 4% of that went to start-ups with one or more female founders, said Louisa Burwood-Taylor, head of media & research at AgFunder.
‘However you slice the data, there’s clearly a very big gap in the level of female entrepreneurship in food and agriculture technology,’ she said.
‘The reasons for this gap are broad including educational and investment biases, so we are investigating how they can be overcome.’
Benjamina Bollag, who co-founded Britain-based Higher Steaks with stem cell scientist Stephanie Wallis, is among those who did receive funding - at least $200,000 since setting up 18 months ago.
Higher Steaks hopes to bring laboratory-grown pork to consumers within the next three years.
Several companies are seeking to produce cell-based meat, promising less waste and dramatically fewer greenhouse gas emissions than livestock, but most are focusing on beef or poultry.
Bollag said being a woman in a male-dominated industry had its difficulties, but added, ‘there are times when it was helpful too, where people were like, ‘actually, we want to diversify so we will pick you’.’
Ensuring women’s voices are heard in farming was a key motivation for Rose Funja, whose company uses aerial surveillance to help farmers in Tanzania avoid crop losses to insects, disease and other pests.
Funja, one of the country’s only female drone pilots, said she made a point of going to farms in person because that was the best way to meet the women who worked on cultivating the crop while the men tended to focus on sales.
‘They let me know what their actual needs are and how these technologies can help them. So we have been able to have very good conversations with them as compared to men,’ she said.
‘They (the women) say they feel safe to talk to another woman about their needs.’
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