Let’s talk about (the lack of) diversity in food

By Carolin Schiemer, Co-founder & CMO of GRIM

Diversity is on the agenda in the vast majority of industries, but the food and agriculture industry is an exception. One third of fruits and vegetables grown are discarded simply because they do not live up to the beauty standards imposed by retail, chain restaurants and the EU. That means if a cucumber is too curvy or a pear too yellow, it cannot be sold in a supermarket, resulting in thousands of tons of food wasted simply because of physical differences to the so-called “class 1” vegetables, that are “uniform in size, shape and colour”. 

Petra and I started our food-waste business GRIM in March 2018, where we buy organic produce that farmers can’t market and sell it on to people in the form of subscription food boxes. We’ve made it our mission to feed the outcasts - all those weird apples, failed lemons and crooked carrots - back into the food system, where they belong. We are determined to create a new quality standard for what is edible, and if you ask consumers, they are ready to change their consumption habits towards a greener lifestyle - together with us. GRIM is at the right spot, at the right time, and our growth numbers confirm that.

 

But what about the agri-food industry, are they ready for change? The sector faces a whole other diversity challenge: that is to close the persistent gender gap. According to Forbes, throughout the last decades, more women have been entering the labor market and have achieved greater visibility and representation in some sectors, such as public relations or hospitality, despite the still existing inequalities in terms of wages and opportunities. However, this is not the case of agriculture, food and (no surprise) tech.

Back to the roots: the reality of female farmers

Let’s start where the journey of food begins: in the field. In much of the world, the face of farming is female. A third of women’s employment globally is in agriculture and yet, women farmers have significantly less access to credit and control over and ownership of land compared to their male counterparts, as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports. In some parts of the world, women still cannot legally own or control land or bring their crop to the market without a man by her side.

Also within the European Union the numbers show how important agriculture is for women. In 2016, women working in agriculture accounted for 35%. While female farmers in the West don’t face the same restrictions as in many low and lower income countries, gender bias in Western agriculture persists. On the one hand, women farmers control far less of the land, only 12% compared to 61% controlled by men (the remaining 28% is held by 'legal entities'). At the same time, the average farm size for farms managed by women is 6.4 hectares while it is more than double in size for farms managed by men. And in terms of output, the average for women was less than €12,000 in 2013 and nearly €40,000 for men. 

One female farmer in the US reports: “Even though I run the farm and make the decisions, they [male farmers] don't want to talk to me about when to cut hay, or when to sell cattle, or how much rain we've gotten. They want to talk to a man,” she explains. “I guess being a woman, you have to go above and beyond to prove yourself.”

The numbers don’t lie. Because of the lack of adequate funds for capital investments, the eco-social system has made it almost impossible for female farmers to reap the same benefits as their male colleagues, despite their extra effort (worldwide, women work more hours per year than men). If there is no money for female farmers available, women are less likely than men to buy and use fertilizer, drought-resistant seeds, sustainable agricultural practices, and other advanced farming tools and techniques that increase crop yields. However, if more female farmers were empowered to make decisions about the land she works and receive the necessary financial support to increase yields, this could according to the FAO reduce the number of undernourished people by up to 150 million, or 17 percent. So in short, in the face of climate change, we’re doomed if we don’t give female farmers the same opportunities as men.

Fast forward: how does the agri-foodtech sector perform?

We’ve now come to a better understand of the inherent lack of diversity in the food industry at the beginning of the value chain, a part that is closely linked to culture and traditions that sometimes seem hard to overcome. So the consequential question arises: how does the agri-foodtech sector perform in terms of gender equality, the sector that is set out to disrupt and “fix” our broken food system by employing new ways of thinking and doing things?

The fast answer is: pretty terrible.

To clarify, the fast-growing agri-foodtech industry includes a wide range of startups and social enterprises that specialize, for example, in recycling waste, developing sustainable food packaging or redistributing supermarket, restaurant and farm food surplus, like Karma, TooGoodToGo or us, GRIM. According to a brand new report by Reuters called “Money Where Our Mouths Are“ - ironically a line Petra always uses when she pitches GRIM in front of investors - female entrepreneurs in the food and agricultural technology industry received a tiny fraction of the record sum of $16.9 billion investment deals secured worldwide in 2018. Start-ups with at least one female founder represented only 16% of those deals and received just 5% of investments. Worse, female only founders received only 3% of investment. 

Does gender equality in the Nordics represent its investment in female founders?

In 2018 in the US, there were more men named John running Fortune 500 companies than there were women. But hey, that’s the US, right? We in the Nordics should be doing better, as we pride ourselves with unique welfare, educational systems and also, gender equality. However, looking at the reality of startup funding, gender equality lacks strongly behind in the Nordics.

A recent 2019 report by Unconventional Ventures, a Venture Capitalfirm investing in early stage startups led by underrepresented founders, revealed that for every 1 euro of VC investment in the Nordics, all-female founders get less than 2 cents. Just pause here for a second. NOT EVEN 2 cents. 


Despite this funding gap, a 2018 study by Boston Consulting Group found that women-founded startups produce twice the revenue than those founded by men. It seems that there is an unconscious bias that men have when making risk decisions, who still represent the largest part of the investors and hold the most capital. We have experienced it many times ourselves that we always have to prove our numbers, while males often “get away” with aspirational answers. There is still a lot to do in terms of supporting and believing in the abilities of women founders.

Because of this financing and trust gap, female founders often use more creative sources of funding. For example, all female founders raise proportionally more often, with smaller ticket sizes, and go more untraditional ways, such as crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is a method of raising capital through the collective effort of friends, family, customers, and individual investors, tapping into the collective efforts of a large pool of individuals and in essence the opposite of traditional investment, which is 6 times more likely to go to male founders. You might have heard of US crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, but there are also European ones such as Seedrs or Funderbeam. Women founders are 4x more likely than in any other team compositions to go the crowdfunding path and rely on the support of her network. Girls gotta stay woke. 


When I, as a female founder read those facts out loud, it gives me the chills. It makes me wonder: is this really the world I live in? Is this the reason why we at GRIM often feel like all the over hours worked and invested in convincing middle-aged white men in suits with cash in the bank to invest in us, to believe in us, turns out to be for nothing? It is then we realise that an investment from people with unconscious bias will never happen on the terms that are actually beneficial for our company, ourselves and most importantly, the purpose we’ve set out to fulfill.


In the short time since we’ve started GRIM, because of the lack of funding, we have built our company as profitable from day one. We, the founders, did not compromise and instead of burning cash, learned to listen to advice (where it made sense), feedback from stakeholders, and learned how to build a truly lean business that gives value to everyone involved. As a diverse team, we had to work very hard for every cent we spend, and we surely know how to spend it wisely. 


When more women work, economies grow, which also points out that conversely, it is estimated that gender gaps cost the economy some 15% of GDP. At GRIM, we clearly understand the value of investment in us, so why don’t you tell us, Mr. Investor, why are you not understanding our value to you and to the future of our world?