Sicily occupies the last position in the EU in terms of female participation in work, presenting an employment rate far from the Italian average. Despite this, female-run companies constitute a third of the total number of the agri-food registered companies on the island, representing a significant production and employment source for the territory.
Studies show that female-led agriculture businesses tend to focus more on innovation, community well-being and sustainable development. These enterprises don’t look only at profit but also at relations with the community, at the return that the investment has on the territory and the people involved in the process.
Therefore, female enterprises are key actors in promoting a transition to sustainable agriculture and food systems capable of reducing environmental risks and increasing the resilience of communities while leading to socio-economic benefits. They are engaged in the front line to respond to society’s need for genuine food, produced with practices that respect the environment, and they are capable of finding the right balance between tradition and innovation, protecting local heritage and biodiversity.
Nevertheless, female entrepreneurs continue to face many obstacles as gender inequalities often prevent them from reaching their full potential. For this reason, it is important to strengthen women’s employment and capacity to do business in the agri-food sector, an industry closely linked to the identity of Sicily and with significant but yet unexploited potential in terms of innovation and growth.
Opportunities at the Mediterranea Forum
We spoke about these challenges and opportunities during the event “Mediterranea – Business Forum for a Sustainable Mediterranean by and for the Women”, held on 17 June 2023 in the picturesque setting of Villa Pottino, in Palermo (Italy).
From the morning, 20 local producers from all over Sicily showcased their specialities in a large exhibition area where visitors could taste and buy genuine and zero-kilometre agricultural products such as fruit and vegetables, oil, wine, dairy products, jams, honey and much more.
These stands offered participants an excellent opportunity to learn about the best of Mediterranean food and to discover numerous best practices such as Valdibella and Libera Terra.
Valdibella is a farmers’ cooperative focusing on biodiversity and regenerative agriculture and is a good example of how social, environmental and financial value can coexist by pairing agroecological practices with collective work as a community, including people with social or physical disadvantages. Libera Terra is a non-profit consortium that produces goods on lands confiscated from criminal organisations. By turning the properties confiscated to the Mafia into community assets, Libera Terra promotes an agricultural model based on legality, civic engagement and social justice.
Several talks and debates were held throughout the day, addressing various topics such as sustainability and women entrepreneurship in the rural world.
This was the occasion to present the three female start-ups financed by the project – AgroMini, A’Naca – Vita in Natura e Nivura – and return the results of the training and coaching path that led to the development of these entrepreneurial projects. Alice Quattrocchi, Eleonora Chiri and Irene Russo told their experiences of female entrepreneurs in the Sicilian rural world, recounting the challenges faced and the successful moments and explaining how commitment, passion and attention to environmental and social sustainability can lead to great outcomes.
Social and environmental sustainability was also discussed in the second session, where three established and innovative entrepreneurs shared their work and their vision, which goes beyond economic value to also integrate environmental and social value.
An example is Cuoche Combattenti,a social entrepreneurship project that provides on-the-job training to women victims of violence. Its founder, Nicoletta Cosentino, recounted her personal rebound story and how an internship in the food industry helped her to rediscover her true self and her passion for cooking. This led her to create a food company that offers economic emancipation to women who have suffered violence, allowing them to acquire new professional skills, self-reliance and self-esteem and demonstrating that food may be an effective tool for the economic empowerment of women in difficulty, giving them the opportunity to gradually become self-reliant.
On the side of environmental sustainability spokeCarlo Amodeo, the first and the most important producer of Sicilian Black Bee honey, a type of honey that reflects the diversity of Sicilian endemic flora and has been recognised as a Slow Food Presidium. The journey of Carlo Amodeo started 40 years ago when he found the last surviving hives of black bees in a little town of Sicily and decided to keep them isolated on a small island to preserve their genetic line. By doing this, he saved this species from extinction and helped them to prosper again, contributing to safeguard and protect nature and its ecosystem.
A similar experience is shared by Silvia Turco, who manages the family farm together with her sisters Tiziana, Anna and Gea: 250 hectares where they grow organic ancient Sicilian grains. Unlike modern ones, ancient grains are very resistant and grow spontaneously without requiring excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Furthermore, ancient grains offer important nutrients and are more digestible and assimilable than modern wheat, with less probability of developing increasingly widespread intolerances. Another great strength is their value in environmental protection, as they represent an opportunity for the protection of natural resources and the conservation of biodiversity.
All these good practices show how enterprises can embrace environmental, economic and social sustainability dimensions to achieve ecological conversion, social empowerment and sustainable development. The event, attended by more than 200 people, contributed to the promotion of quality, innovation and sustainability in the food and agricultural sectors.
Thanks to the job corner, it was also possible for job seekers to meet and connect with companies with open vacancies, creating new opportunities for future collaboration.
Overall, Mediterranea was a unique opportunity to discover the gastronomic traditions of the area, to learn about sustainable entrepreneurship as well as to network and exchange knowledge and experiences.
About the project
The goal of the project InnovAgroWoMed is to boost women employability and entrepreneurshipin the Agri-food sector, an industry closely linked to the cultural identity of the Mediterranean region and showing a significant level of untapped potential in terms of innovation and growth. InnovAgroWoMed is a project funded by the European Union under ENI CBC Mediterranean Sea Basin Programme.
- Università di Roma Tor Vergata (Italy, coordinator)
- Jovesolides (Spain)
- Centre of Arab Women for Training and Research – CAWTAR (Tunisia)
- Palestinian businesswomen’s association – ASALA (Palestine)
- CESIE (Italy)
For further information