Synopsis

A synopsis of the Merill Rural Network 

Compiled by Dr. Silvia Gilberti 

December 2020



PREMISE

Merill is a social enterprise located in Malta that brings together a number of local producers, artisans, farmers and breeders into a rural network. The mission is twofold: on one hand Merill aims at supporting rural families to create alternative experiences revolving around food and targeted to tourists and local people, on the other hand it strives to promote their sustainable produce, contributing directly to the conservation of the environment, traditions and empowerment of rural communities. [7] What the Merill Rural Network envisions is the creation of a circular economy, where rural tourism supports agriculture and crafts through the diversification of activities. [1]

 

HISTORY

Merill was founded by Jeanette and Christian Borg in 2010[7]; at the beginning, it was meant to be an ‘ecotour venture’ as the couple organised sightseeing tours aimed at discovering the lesser-known places of the Maltese Islands. Soon after the launch, the founders realized that they could not have access to some of the most beautiful rural areas unless they partnered with the land managers. Also, conducting rural tours without engaging the protagonists of these areas was ineffective as it did not contribute to the long term upkeep of the territory and its local community. [4] Moreover, as a Mediterranean agro-system management graduate, Jeanette Borg was aware of the untapped desire on the part of the public to know more about farming and caring for the land that produces our food. [8]

Since then, Merill has been described as a social enterprise and it has grown gradually with time, thanks to relationships of reciprocal trust among the different stakeholders. Indeed, from the onset, the philosophy has been based on a ‘personal relationship’ model where mutual trust, good communication and empathy are the main principles, and this naturally takes time.[1]

From 2012 to 2014, the social enterprise accessed the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, under the LEADER program, promoted by the ENRD. This contributed to make the social enterprise competitive on the market, as it could finance tangible and intangible investments to improve the rural network. Besides training sessions to increase the partners’ know-how and an intercultural experience in Sicily, economic resources were invested in marketing actions and small-scale investments in catering supplies and furniture equipment for those members whose venues host groups that provide Merill with experiences.[2]

Today, the Merill Rural Network is an affirmed reality in Malta and it is often referred to as a best practice in networking and rural tourism. [3] [14]



MAIN ACTIVITIES 

The activities of Merill revolve around three pillars: networking, local products and rural tourism. 

 

Network

Merill gathers a number of local producers, farmers and artisans operating in the rural parts of the Maltese Islands. Merill is an exclusive web of farming families and artisans across Malta and Gozo, whose aim is to diversify their activities and to provide their agricultural and artisanal products to locals and tourists. The network has grown with time, basing its development on relations of reciprocal trust among the stakeholders. In order to preserve the quality and authenticity which are typical of the rural areas, the process of expansion has been slow; indeed, the founders just seek partners employing sustainable techniques and keeping high-quality standards. [4] 

From this perspective, Merill wants to give a voice to the workers belonging to the first sector, as they are often an underrepresented segment in society: their work is not just producing agricultural crops, but they are also environmental stewards, taking care of biodiversity and conserving traditions and knowledge about food production. [7]

 

Local products

Merill helps its partners to add value to their produce, and aims to bridge the gap between producers and consumers. Indeed, the gastronomy element is particularly important in the experiences arranged by the members within the network and local products are used in tasting sessions and other experiences. [4] Moreover, Merill sells products directly from social media pages and through a collaboration with food stores. Indeed, Merill is committed to provide a tangible economic income to specific rural areas and their inhabitants. [6]
Merill also introduced the concept of eco-hampers, which are hand-made boxes assembled with the products sourced by its partners, together with eco gifts - where the use of plastic or synthetic materials is reduced to a minimum. The products sourced by Merill are mainly: wine, honey, olive oil, cheese, jams, pickled vegetables, bakery products, and artisanal products. [1]

 

Rural tourism

Merill collaborates with partners who organise eco tours in the rural parts of the country, indeed Borg claims that agriculture has a lot to offer besides the product itself: [7] the ‘best-sellers’ are the Olive Grove Experience and the Food and Wine Experience. The gastronomy element is paramount in experiences endorsed by the social enterprise, as locally-sourced food and wine play a key role in the tourist experience making it both physical and emotional. [4] The tourist can choose between a shared tour or a private tour, that is more exclusive as it is a tailor-made experiential activity taking into account the visitors’ desires. [1] However, the activities by Merill’s members are just targeted to small groups so as to respect the sensitive areas visited. [6]

Tours are not just about gastronomy because most farmers are able to integrate food with Maltese tangible heritage, also providing historical and cultural insights.[5] In fact, Borg argues that different types of tourism may overlap; for instance, a nature walk can include a stop at a farm to taste local products. [8]  In this sense, Merill exploits the principle of co-creation of the experiences in tourism, as if tourists only stop at sightseeing, the real stewards of rural areas would not benefit from it, on the contrary conducting tours without directly involving the rural community would be disrupting and have detrimental effects on these areas. [6]

At the beginning of Merill’s activity, the founders thought that this rural tourism activity would just be suitable for tourists but eventually the local community started to be interested in taking part in this kind of experiences. [7]

 

BUSINESS MODEL

The Merill Rural Network is a social enterprise, therefore its main objective is to have a social impact rather than make a profit for its owners or the stakeholders.[1] 

The business model adopted by the Merill Rural Network is the so-called ‘hub and spoke model’. Through this approach, Merill is the central fulcrum - i.e. the hub - and its role is to hold together the different members within the network - i.e. the spokes. [4] From this perspective, the model of Merill can be compared to a wheel, which works outwards from a central hub, which is the social enterprise, through a number of spokes, which are the members and partners of the network: when everything runs as it should, the wheel spins smoothly, meaning that the social enterprise is achieving its goals. [1] 

This should not be confused with a cooperative, because it does not work in a pyramid structure; indeed, the different members are empowered to improve their products individually and Merill helps them to develop their own brands and to build their own customers’ loyalty.[4]

 

 

SUCCESS STORIES 

A number of high-profile clients have entrusted Merill with their businesses [6], in fact, Merill was described as a tangible example of social enterprise which is successful on a national level already in 2015. [14]

An instance of how the Merill Rural Network is able to bridge the gap between local producers and consumers can be provided by Darmanin Salt Pans in Żonqor Point (Marsaskala). These saltpanshave been a property of a family of salt harvesters for eight generations and they adopted more or less the same modus operandi for ages: the collaboration with the Merill Rural Network has given birth to guided tours at the location, as well as to hands-on salt harvesting workshops in order not only to market local salt produce, but also to promote the artisanal skills of salt harvesters, their relationship with this piece of coastal landscape, and the awareness of the benefits of sea salt. After the process of drying, sea salt is then packaged under the trademark of ‘Merill’ and sold locally or to tourists engaged in the experiences at the saltpans.[9][10]

Apart from food, the Merill Rural Network also offers tours concerning some Maltese traditions, such as weaving. Antoine Vella, better known as 'Antoine tan-Newl' (Antoine the weaver) owns a workshop in Rabat that is a must-stop for travellers seeking to know more about the tradition. During the demonstrations, Antoine explains how cloth and other materials used to be made before textile factories existed, as well as giving details about the process through hands-on experiences. Moreover, he has several items he produces on display for the visitors to buy [12]. Thanks to the network, Antoine could also be actively involved in the European Community’s LEADER project, which has empowered him to use internet and digital marketing and enabled him to invest in specialised equipment. [11]

The collaboration between the Merill Rural Network and the Tan-Nixxiegħa Olive Grove - a spring garden described as “an open-air museum of Maltese flora and fauna” - has enabled the diversification of activities on this grove, which were previously committed just to the production of olive oil. This place has turned into a best-practice agri-tourism attraction where visitors can get in touch with Maltese nature and enjoy other activities such as tasting sessions and hands-on experiences. [13]

 

 

REFERENCES

  1. Borg, C. Merill [online]. Available at: http://merill.com.mt/ (Accessed: November 2020) 

  2. Borg, C. (2015). The Merill Rural Network [online]. Available at: https://bit.ly/33q6zDB (Accessed: November 2020)

  3. Burini, F. (2018). ‘Landscape analysis and spatial capital for cultural heritage management in a networked perspective’in: Gronau, W. (ed.). E-CUL-TOURS open source textbook, p. 82, [online]. Available at: https://bit.ly/3lkckZw (Accessed: November 2020)

  4. Gilberti, S. (2020). ‘Landscape and Local Knowledge Enhancement for Slow Tourism through Digital Mapping and Storytelling: the Case of Malta and of the Province of Brescia’ [online]. Available at: https://bit.ly/3o0Vm4j (Accessed: November 2020)

  5. Lonely Planet (2020), Merill Eco Tours - Top choice food & drink in Northern Malta [online]. Available at: https://bit.ly/3mgiUlj (Accessed: November 2020)

  6. No author (2013) ‘Promoting eco- and agri- tourism’, Times of Malta, 10 February [online]. Available at: https://bit.ly/3liVjPv (Accessed November 2020) 

  7. SOS MALTA Ngo (2019). Merill Eco Tours | #whatroledoyouplay | Resilient Communities in Malta. Available at: https://bit.ly/3lchsih (Accessed: November 2020)

  8. Zammit, A. (2012) ‘A farmer’s eco-network for tourism’, Times of Malta, 16 September [online]. Available at: https://bit.ly/2KPswWf (Accessed: November 2020)

  9. Gauci, R., Schembri, J. A., (edited by), (2014). Landscapes and landforms of the Maltese Islands, Springers. Available at: https://books.google.com.mt/books?id=VVanDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA352&lpg=PA352&dq=nazzareno+darmanin+salt+malta&source=bl&ots=9WH2tMN3Ji&sig=ACfU3U3FvTVYOFzoYoGXx_iMApCR42Pxgw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiylfGezKztAhVPCuwKHcHEAZ4Q6AEwB3oECAYQAg#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed: 7 december 2020)

  10. Chetcuti, K., (2013). ‘Making a living in salt’, in Times of Malta, 23 June [online]. Available at:  https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/Making-a-living-in-salt.474946 (Accessed: 7 december 2020).

  11. Merill (2015). Merill - Dingli; Agriculture and the rural environment. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAsP6YoAbGI&feature=youtu.be&list=PLsZv6lcOyN6LnMlFZHMnd9Z2adPdVma6d (Accessed: 7 december 2020)

  12. Jung, S. ‘Weaving in Malta’, airmalta [online]. Available at: https://www.airmalta.com/blog/malta/weaving-in-malta/

  13. Bonello, D., (2014). ‘Turisti jingħataw esperjenza tal-kampanja Maltija, tradizzjonijiet u kultura’ in TVM, 7 June [online]. Available at: https://www.tvm.com.mt/mt/news/turisti-jinghataw-esperjenza-tal-kampanja-maltija-tradizzjonijiet-u-kultura/ (Accessed: 13 December 2020)

  14. https://issuu.com/adrianfriggieri/docs/low_res_version