Australia is home to one of the world's oldest cultures, with 60,000 years of living off and cultivating the land. The holistic knowledge and approach to cultivation exist today. Indigenous women, in particular, hold a deep connection to food from understanding season cycles to the medicinal use of plants—knowledge passed from generation to generation.
However, Australia's First Nations People's participation in the native ag+food sector is extremely low, with less than 2% representation. Similarly, a compounding figure of just 0.2% of Australian businesses is operated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women as per a 2011 study. (ABS, 2015: 'A Profile of Australian Women in Business').
The native ag+food sector plays a fundamental role in Indigenous cultural and social identity. The lack of participation by Indigenous people (and women in particular) is likely to impact their ability to secure economic, health, cultural and social benefits for themselves and their communities. Indigenous women face multiple barriers to participation due to their gender, cultural background, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, which creates a vicious cycle in which the lack of Indigenous female role models negatively impacts young Indigenous women's career decisions.
Research tells us that if we can improve Indigenous communities' subjective wellbeing: connection to Country and culture, we can improve the current situation (Tomlyn et al. 2014, The Subjective Wellbeing of 'At-Risk' Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australian Adolescents). This is where the role of agriculture and food comes in.
Food Futures Company and its partners, Australian Native Food & Botanicals (ANFAB), Charles Sturt University (CSU) and Appetite Communications, are responding to this challenge through a new national Native Ag+Food Entrepreneurship Pathways Program that integrates cultural connections combined with the development of new knowledge and skills in a range of STEM disciplines.
The aim is to empower Indigenous girls and women with the confidence, knowledge, and entrepreneurial skills they need to successfully launch new ventures and/or participate in tech-based careers across the native ag+food value chain. The initiative will cover three stages of career development, including:
Schools Awareness & Inspiration Program targeting Indigenous girls in Years 9-11
Native Ag+Food Entrepreneur Stimulus Program targeting young Indigenous women in university or TAFE
Native Ag+Food Accelerator and Incubator Programs targeting Indigenous women in or already involved in the sector.
The Entrepreneurship Pathways Program is envisaged as a 5-year program that will deliver measurable impact in significantly increasing awareness and participation rates by Indigenous women in the native ag+food sector above the current rate of <2%.
This pilot project is intended to illuminate the journey for young Indigenous women from their earliest interest in the cultural connections that working in native ag+food could offer through to realising their aspirations to build a career or create a successful and impactful business in one of the fastest-growing agrifood sectors globally.
But first, we are starting with increasing conversations. This International Women's Day, we seek to increase awareness around the challenges and talk solutions. The panel will include Australian Native Food and Botanicals Chair Suzanne Thompson, discussing the importance of collaboration as a country. As a wild harvester herself, Pat Torress of Mayi Harvest will join the panel to discuss the role of cultural knowledge and its importance to the sector's future. As a successful Indigenous entrepreneur and Supply Nation's 2017 Indigenous Businesswoman of the Year, Julie Okley will discuss the importance of mentorship for women. Dr Gerlaldine McGuire of Rainforest Bounty, is passionate about native food's role in health for people and the planet and why we should pay attention to using the native sector opportunity to regenerate the country.
So we ask you to #choosetochallenge the existing statistics and increase the capabilities and pathways for Indigenous women around Australia.