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Women in agtech: the CEOs and founders changing the face of the farming industry

5 min read
AUTHOR: Tilly St Aubyn

Over the past few decades, vast developments in technology coupled with ever-growing awareness of food sustainability have led to extensive innovation in the agricultural industry. Agri-foodtech is proving to be a booming sector, yet despite such proliferation, there still exists a significant disparity between men and women in this space.

Prior to the explosion of agri-foodtech, agriculture has historically been a heavily male-dominated industry and being a farmer was seen in the past as a job for men, whilst women tended to the house and children. In some developing countries today, only 10 to 20% of landholders are women and in some regions, women are still forbidden to legally own or control land. Without such rights, it’s been challenging for women to establish themselves in the agricultural sector.

Entrenched gender roles however, have been blurred by the emergence of technology as food systems are evolving to become less dependent on physical capabilities and more focused on strategic management and technical solutions. Entrepreneurs, farmers, investors, scientists, innovators and industry leaders across the world are coming together to fuel the development of the food system. Why then, when the opportunities are growing and the barriers to entry are dissolving, is there still a disproportionate number of women in the agtech industry?

According to an AgFunder report, just 7% of agtech deals and 3% of the record-breaking volume of dollars invested in the sector in 2018 went to female-founded teams. Of these, only 16% of deals supported start-ups with at least one female co-founder. Further still, the ten largest agri-foodtech investments in 2020 went to companies founded by men.  

The imbalance is attributed to varying reasons including lower rates of girls studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects at school, the prevalence of ‘manels’ (male dominated investment panels) and old fashion notions around female commitment and capabilities. Yet, perhaps, the underlying issue behind said reasons is implicit structural bias. Heightened scepticism, loaded questioning and lower investment rates than their male counterparts are some products of this bias and demonstrate the reality of women being taken less seriously in the agri-foodtech space.

In a recent Table Talk podcast, Claudia Roessler, Principle Program Manager Azure Global Engineering at Microsoft, said of the disparity: “I have seen places where women hire a man even though they run a farm. They let a man do the job in hiring labour and other stuff because it’s more expected and common, and same is true on the business side. Bias is a big one to address.”

Also speaking on the podcast was Michaela Sullivan, Co-Founder at Get Kinosol, a corporation committed to reducing food waste through solar-powered food dehydrators. Sullivan spends time working in Uganda with primarily women in agriculture.

“A lot of the time I go to agriculture conferences or entrepreneurship conferences and there are very few women in the room so a lot of the time it’s just really getting that seat at the table.”, she said.

“People think women maybe aren’t as equipped to run a technology business or aren’t as equipped to run a business.” 

Speaking at a Food Matters webinar in 2020, Jewell Sparks, Founder and CEO of BitHOUSE Group, a venture development cultivator that brings innovative products and services to the market, points to the systemic issue of unconscious bias for females during the investment process. “Women have issues obtaining capital”, she commented.

Christine Gould, founder of Thought For Food, a food and agriculture start-up accelerator, reinforces this point, alluding to “the typical white older male”. Gould works to tackle the issue of representation in the world of start-up funding and actually believes that the agri-food tech space is a unique sector in terms of the shifting necessary skills. Collaboration, empathy and soft leadership are some of the traits Gould believes will be required in the future of agriculture and she actually believes women are better set up to fulfil these characteristics than men. 

When I spoke to Tinia Pina, Founder and CEO of Re-Nuble, a company using technology to transform unrecoverable vegetative food byproducts into a platform of sustainable technologies for soilless farming, about her views on the industry, she said of her experience in the agtech sector: “I’ve noticed discernible ‘old boy networks’ as one would say, but have never allowed my gender to serve as a weakness in my persistence to establish a relationship with someone in the industry. 

These networks certainly make it easier to be featured on a podcast or invited for a speaker opportunity. However, I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to be supported by all genders and gender-neutral identifying people simply because of what we’re doing at Re-Nuble. At the end of the day, farms want to be the best environmental stewards they can be and a majority really get behind what we’re doing.”

Progress has been made and some initiatives are working to close this funding gap. AgFunder has launched a searchable directory that focuses on women innovators in agri-foodtech; Moxie Exchange are working with ambassadors in agribusiness to eliminate unconscious bias; Artemis has created an open list of inspirational women speakers in agtech; Money Where Our Mouths Are (MWOMA) is the first data-driven investigation into funding gaps for female entrepreneurs in the agrifood-tech industry; the EU is providing rural development funds to help young women get started in farming; and the World Bank has launched a webinar series for ‘Women Leadership in AgTech’ in its efforts to transform the sector.

Prominent female founders in the agri-foodtech space include Danielle Lloyd, Founder of Food + Tech Connect, an online platform to helps individuals to innovate within the food system; Aashna Singh, Founder of Mooo Farms, an app designed for farmers in rural India that gives them access to an e-commerce marketplace helping them to connect with buyers; and Pamela Marrone, Founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, a pest management and plant health product company that went public in 2013.

Despite the encouraging steps forward, the reality prevails: agribusiness is still a male-dominated industry, but more emerging initiatives are starting to shift the global consciousness to recognise the important role women can play in the future of the sector.