DCU Ryan Academy helping farmers to think like entrepreneurs

Comment: In March 2012, the team at DCU Ryan Academy was approached by a group from the agri-food sector who expressed an interest in our work. The group included representatives from the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society, Dairy Ireland and Nuffield scholars.

We decided on a half-day workshop at the Academy in Citywest Hotel to discuss what supports we might offer. The workshop was held on Daffodil Day and one of the group, a horticultural farmer, charmed the female members of staff with bunches of daffodils. The meeting was off to a good start.

The group outlined some of the challenges facing the agri-sector and their need to become more innovative and entrepreneurial in their approach. We also discussed education in the sector and a perceived gap for short practical programmes. We agreed to research the sector and develop a customised training programme for farmers and leaders of the agri-food community.

Research findings

Through our research, we learned that Ireland’s agri-food industry remains a key component of our economy. Agri-food accounts for 8 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and a similar proportion of total employment, amounting to almost 160,000 jobs. It accounts for a major proportion of exports of Irish-owned enterprises and its products are sold in more than 170 markets around the world. (Source: Bord Bia)

We realised there are real opportunities in the agri-sector and the focus needs to be on sustainability. There are disruptive forces on the horizon including the abolition of EU milk quotas in 2015. Land availability and the ownership of land is a key concern for the industry and opportunities for young farmers are often thwarted by reluctance among older farmers to retire and hand over at “normal” retirement age.

Most of all, we realised that farming is a business and farmers need to start thinking in these terms. We felt that they could benefit from becoming more entrepreneurial in their approach and from looking at how other sectors innovate. From a leadership perspective, it seemed to us the sector hadn’t really considered issues of corporate governance and could be in danger of making the mistakes already made by other sectors, most notably the banking sector. Finally, the DCU Ryan Academy felt many farmers would benefit from working on their own leadership and management styles and similar to all of us, could improve their communication skills.

We spoke to a number of interested parties including the Irish Farmers Journal and AIB Bank, both of whom expressed genuine interest in the project and agreed to come on board as sponsors for our programme.

Farm Entrepreneurship and Leadership Programme

Our pilot programme commenced on 31 October 2012. A group of 22 farm leaders signed up to attend five days of workshops and complete group assignments over a two-month period. The workshops covered the areas of leadership, communications, marketing, innovation, financial management and corporate governance among other topics. Each member of the group developed a business model canvass for their farm or agri-business.

They got to listen to speakers from non-agri related industries and went on a trip to Intel to learn how innovation works in the semi-conductor industry. Half way through the programme, we hosted a dinner and panel discussion for the group and invited guests to the Village at Lyons and a lively debate took place over dinner.

This group really impressed us. They engaged avidly with the programme, arriving early for every session, participated actively in class, gave us comprehensive and positive feedback through our evaluation process, completed their assignments between classes and all participants sat and passed the optional exam, thereby achieving their Level 6 FETAC accreditation. On the night of the dinner, they all retired afterwards to a night club in town and arrived on time for class the next morning, looking slightly tired but ready for action.

One of the less obvious benefits of this type of programme is the opportunity to build a new network and to make new contacts and friends. The participants approached us on the final day to say that they would like to stay in touch with one another and the Academy and this led to the establishment of a series of innovation master class events. The first master class took place in May of this year, when we invited Bart Doorneweert, a leading figure in the Dutch agri-sector to Dublin for the event.

We plan to run the Farm Entrepreneurship and Leadership programme twice a year and the next programme is due to commence in October.

About us

DCU Ryan Academy is a not-for-profit joint venture between Dublin City University and the family of the late Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair. Our aim is to be a leading supporter of entrepreneurs and innovation in Ireland. We offer a range of programmes designed to educate and develop individual entrepreneurs and accelerate the growth phases of entrepreneurial ventures. While we offer our programmes generally to anyone with an interest in entrepreneurship and innovation, we have preferred sectors where we offer more customised programmes to include mentorship, acceleration and ultimately investment.

By Ann Horan, Chief Executive, DCU Ryan Academy

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