When I think of Ireland, I am reminded among many things of the beautiful rolling green countryside, the renowned writers and musicians and the congenial pub vibe. Until the early 1990’s and by Western European standards, Ireland was relatively poor, with high unemployment and low economic growth. After joining the EU in 1976 and with the arrival of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, changes occurred that wouldn’t have been imagined even just a short time before. Now, on paper, Ireland has one of the highest GDP’s in the world.
In the course of my research on the topic of European women farmers and rural entrepreneurs, I have learned more about what is happening in Ireland regarding women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship. The research isn’t over, but from what I have seen so far by scratching the surface, Ireland may be setting a benchmark in this regard. Three key initiatives help to tell the story, including the IFA Diversity Report, a study on the Training Needs of Rural Women, and the ACORNS initiative. What is happening in Ireland regarding women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship affects all of us in the end, especially because they are moving ahead.
The IFA Diversity Report
While farming is still a man’s world, women’s representation in the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) has begun to increase. The organisation recognized that there must be a chain of female leaders who are present at all levels within the IFA structure. Their first diversity strategy reaffirms the Association’s vision and commitment to represent all farmers, and to build a platform for change, creating momentum and challenging the status quo to support a more diverse and inclusive membership.
The report states that:
“A resilient Association depends on every person in it having the opportunity to contribute fully. Everyone within the farming community has a role to play in making this a reality. We must encourage diversity at every level,every day…to ensure the varied perspectives needed to tackle the complex problems facing farm families.”
The report appears to set the foundation for women farmers to get more involved, and I wanted to double check to make sure my understanding was correct. Journalist Peter Cluskey told me that the IFA has been a thoroughly male-dominated organisation and has largely ignored women over the years. Ireland has had multiple booms and busts, and he wonders why it took a wealthy organization, such as the IFA, until 2019 to take action? According to Peter, “…as far as the IFA leaders were concerned, the place of women was in the home… however, if they are now issuing reports that acknowledge that women have brains, tant mieux!” While what is happening now is all good, he advised me not to give too much credit where it isn’t due!
Training Needs of Rural Women
How fascinating it was for me to learn that the Irish government realized the need to learn more about the training needs of rural women and to develop courses that fit their specific requirements! Part of the impetus for this research was due to the continuing hollowing out of the Irish countryside and the brain drain toward the cities. The idea was that if more Irish women could find work on the farm and in small towns, this could help to stop the decline of rural areas, make farms more sustainable, and support food security and food sovereignty. Sectors such as tourism and agriculture were considered to be potential beneficiaries. As it is, most farms are relatively small, and the more successful ones have both partners employed, including on the farm and with a secondary business.
The Southern region’s study found that the most important content of the course should aim to raise participant confidence and help participants take on greater leadership roles, be it in their family, their family business, their career, their community or starting their own enterprise. There also appeared to be a gap in training for women aged 35 – 60, particularly in rural areas, and it was believed that a training course addressing this specific age group of women could potentially meet a major unmet need. The key findings of the study found that the training should include “self-confidence building, office software, social media, regulations, diversification, communication, financial, and entrepreneurial competencies”.
Even though the training needs were identified and courses made available, problems were also identified in ensuring that everyone could access the programmes. For example, distance/geography, caring responsibilities (children and elderly relatives) and low confidence were found to be the most important hindrances to being able to attend. The best way recommended to structure the course was found to be through a series of modules, with about 60% face-to-face on weekends, and 40% online. The course was promoted in particular to those women currently with lower levels of confidence and the report recommends that ‘it should not appear daunting or difficult’. It should, however, be motivational and networking and socializing were identified as key motivators of participation. This last point in particular reminds me how important networking and socializing are also to our WBII events.
Funded by the Department of Agriculture and through the Rural Innovation and Development Fund, ACORNS (Accelerating Creation of Rural Nascent Startups) is an amazing programme that is designed to support early-stage female entrepreneurs living in rural Ireland. It runs over a part-time six months period, and is based on a belief that entrepreneurs learn best from each other. Women entrepreneurs who have already started or developed a business in rural Ireland are the ‘Lead Entrepreneurs’, the backbone of the initiative, and they chair the interactive ’round table’ training sessions with startups. Each one works with about 8 participants to facilitate meetings, addressing enterprise challenges and supporting participants to consider how best to start, develop and position their businesses for sustainability and growth. ACORNS participants must have or intend to have a new business which is located outside the city boundaries of the major Irish cities. For more information about the newest amazing businesses created, please follow this link.
How was this possible?
Little more than two generations ago, most of the Irish were connected to a farm, and ‘the land’, which in many cases was all they had, gives it special importance. Even though it is an ‘island’ culture, Ireland has been able to make important strides in women’s empowerment where other countries have not. How is this possible? It seems that there is a growing recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion, and the need to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table, including by using quotas if necessary. The Irish government also realized that the money they were investing in supporting ‘all entrepreneurs’ was not reaching women, and that rural women would not come to mixed training events. Once they recognized that their programs were not working as intended, the government was willing to invest in programs specifically geared for women.
Many countries are deeply concerned about the decline of the small towns that support the farming communities, rural residents, and by the food that we put on the table, eventually affecting all of us. By tracking the statistics, becoming more inclusive, and through programmes developed specifically for women, Irish women are being empowered to remain in rural areas, to start up a business and succeed. This basic model can be applied in every country. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear that young women are already moving ahead and will not put up with the old ways. We can all learn something from Ireland’s experience, and I hope that this story from Ireland will inspire us all. Congratulations to Ireland on coming this far!
*Special thanks to Amii McKeever, Editor of Irish Country Living, Paula Fitzsimons, Director of ACORNS, and Peter Cluskey, Journalist for The Irish Times, for their support in preparing this article.