An international delegation is set to shine a spotlight on women business leaders in rural Argyll, finds Sandra Dick.

IT was the day the truck arrived with the large wooden box containing a gleaming red half ton hand-built coffee roaster machine, that Eve Macfarlane’s business plan finally fell perfectly into place.

The container had made its way from Ponderay, Idaho in America’s north-west, across the Atlantic, then finally by winding road to Eve’s whitewashed Argyll workshop, a stone’s throw from the Kyles of Bute.

Released from its wooden container, carefully manoeuvred into place using brute force and broom handles, it sat in the middle of the room while she proudly snapped a picture and uploaded it in all its pristine glory to her Instagram page.

It roasted its first coffee within days. Within a few weeks, Eve’s Argyll Coffee Roasters business was supplying her home roasted beans to cafes around the Tighnabruaich area, popping up at shops and delicatessens and village producers’ markets.

This week (w/b MONDAY 10 JUNE), the monster Diedrich IR’s steel roasting drums – the heaviest of their kind – will take another delivery of green coffee beans and, under Eve’s direction, turn them into one of her favourite blends to be served up to women from six countries drawn to her small business in a village 25 miles from Dunoon, to see how she has overcome some of the typical challenges facing female entrepreneurs in rural and sparsely populated places.

The visit is part of a major seminar that will see 50 women from rural parts of Iceland, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Canada and across Scotland gather on the opposite side of the peninsula at Portavadie, for a three day event intended to champion women-led businesses in remote places and spotlight some of the issues that can hinder or, indeed, aid their success.

Organised by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and supported by the European Regional Development Programme, the W-Power itinerary includes presentations on using tools such as virtual networking and digital marketing to tackle some of the challenges of doing business in distant locations.

Accessing finance, peer learning and gender-aware business coaching will also be discussed, along with real-life examples of women entrepreneurs – like Eve - who have battled through obstacles to run successful businesses.

Eve launched Argyll Coffee Roasters last year after deciding to merge her love for coffee with her background in digital marketing – a helpful tool when it comes to highlighting the natural beauty on the doorstep and its links to her business.

In some cases, she admits, the biggest obstacles – apart from when the ferry doesn’t sail and her supplies are help up - can often be child-sized.

“There’s not much childcare provision in rural areas, and I have two pre-school children,” she says, referring to Ava, five and two-year-old Tess. “So, time and juggling everything can be hard.

“Where we’re positioned works both ways – it’s an issue in terms of deliveries, but it works in my favour because there’s also a lot of interest in local food and provenance.”

Women-owned businesses are thriving with their contribution to the Scottish economy growing by 76 per cent from adding £5 billion to the Scottish economy in 2012 to £8.8 billion in 2015, according to the Federation of Small Businesses.

In 2017, 21 per cent of SMEs in Scotland were women-led, either controlled by a single woman or having a management team composed of a majority of women. The figure, from the Office of the Economic Adviser’s annual Small Business Survey Scotland, compares with 44% of SMEs in Scotland being entirely male-led – a sign that despite achieving success, women are still under-represented as business founders/leaders in the SME sector.

According to Cathy Higginson, HIE’s W-Power project manager, women business owners in rural areas can face a range of issues – from deep-set subconscious bias which can hinder attempts to access finance or support, to finding a business which fits their rural lifestyle.

And she fears long held attitudes that traditional roles – particularly within the agricultural sector – means women can be seen as the employee rather than the employer.

“Being in a small rural community means there’s good local support, once people get their head around that it’s a woman in a business. Views can be traditional,” she says.

“In the agricultural sector, traditional roles have hung around a bit longer, however, a lot of younger women are moving into farming and taking on leading roles.

“I often hear if a man and woman are working in business, there is still an assumption that it’s the man who is the boss and the woman who is working for him.”

There is also work to be done in encouraging both women to be bolder when it comes to sourcing the right finance for their rural business, and for lenders to be more open to women-led business, she adds.

“We know there are gender differences in attitudes to borrowing money; women tend to be more risk aware, more cautious when asking for money.

“But at the same time, people offering money may have an unconscious bias. Men get awarded a lot more funding than women.

“A project like this is about encouraging women to show confidence, and to try to influence existing systems to be more gender aware,” she adds.

“Encouraging the creation of more women-led businesses and helping existing ones to expand will not only bring fresh and creative ideas but will empower women in society and create new sources of prosperity and jobs.”

At Torrisdale Castle Estate on the Kintyre peninsula, Emma Macalister Hall merges her role as Director of Kintyre Gin, with meeting the needs of India, seven and Zoe, aged nine.

Seven weeks of summer holidays are about to add to the challenges of running a rural business. “I think women often have so much going on in their heads. I’m not dissing fathers,” she quickly adds, “but in my experience and my friends’, it’s the women who know things like the kids are off on an archaeology trip on Wednesday so they need their wellies.

“You don’t have that advantage of devoting 100 per cent of your time just to the business.”

The W-Power group will travel to the estate, 12 miles north of Campbeltown, to see how Emma and husband Niall cope with the logistics of building a brand in a remote spot.

In their case, it’s meant a multi-layered approach to supplement income: gin tours may soon be joined by other gin related events and other products.

While the W-Power seminar is focused on Argyll, it’s expected the findings will go on to have an impact on women in rural businesses across all six countries.

Helena Puhakka-Tarvainen, international lead for the W-Power project from North Karelia, Finland, said: “We are very excited to be spending time in Argyll visiting female-led businesses and seeing at first hand the opportunities W-Power is creating here.

“By working together across national boundaries, W-Power helps us share ideas and good practice.

“Together we can test out new types of gender-aware business support, and empower business women across the region to develop and grow their businesses.”