The Network

Empowering the local rural community

The Merill Rural Network is an initiative which brings together a number of farmers and artisans from all over the Maltese Islands. The aim of this network is to create awareness about local agriculture, revive traditions, and empower the rural community to diversify their income in a sustainable manner.

Organised visits and excursions, give the network members an opportunity to make use of their venues, products and services to offer new experiences to locals and tourists. All the farmers and artisans in the network are a precious resource for our enterprise since they provide us with unique venues and genuine products. In return, we provide them with a structured organisation to market their skills, their hard work and their produce.

 

How does the network function? The Merill Rural Network has evolved into a very particular structure.

 

Let's see what it is NOT first:

 

The network is not a cooperative. Usually, a co-op would be owned by the different stakeholders operating under a single brand, each member would provide a particular service or product, but the focus is on the common output, and not the individual members.

The network is also not profit-oriented. That doesn't mean that it doesn't aspire to be economically sustainable, but profits, or financial gain, is definitely not the main scope of the enterprise.

 

 

So how does the Merill Rural Network operate?

 

The Merill Rural Network has been described by many as one of the first 'social enterprises' in the Maltese Islands. In the beginning, we had no clue of what was being created, but our core-principles guided us and kept us in check along the way. Today, we like to say that Merill follows a complex 'hub and spoke' model. This is very difficult to explain or understand, especially since entrepreneurial communities are still very much self-centred and profit-oriented, but since 2015 we have seen a steady rise in the appreciation of community-based commercial initiatives which aim to give a higher value to environmental and social aspects. 

 

 

What makes an enterprise 'social'?

“A social enterprise is an operator in the social economy whose main objective is to have a social impact rather than make a profit for their owners or shareholders. It operates by providing goods and services for the market in an entrepreneurial and innovative fashion and uses its profits primarily to achieve social objectives. It is managed in an open and responsible manner and, in particular, involves employees, consumers and stakeholders affected by its commercial activities.”

The definition that is being used at the EU.

 

 

The 'Hub and Spoke' principle

 

The model is exactly what it says: A wheel (the enterprise), which works from a central hub (Merill) and a number of spokes (members, or individual farming and artisans). When everything runs as it should, the wheel would spin smoothly (achieving the enterprise's goals).

Through this model, we have achieved a high level of centralisation. Instead of having multiple farmers and artisans all trying to do the same thing, the hub model creates a hierarchy of control where centralised protocols can be issued. From there, the orders filter on down through the spokes so that a maximum level of efficiency can be maintained.

One of the greatest advantages for the members is that through this model, they create, nurture and maintain their own personal brand and identity. Everyone is unique, but considered to be equal within the network. There are different parts of the wheel with different roles, but in the end, everyone is on the same wheel that is spinning.

Our members are first and foremost empowered to focus on their main agricultural or artisanal activities. On the other hand, they allow Merill to care for the development of their individual brand, service and product targeting leisure activities for locals and tourists.

As with any other business model, this doesn't come without any disadvantages. The model has been criticised along the years as being too self-effacing. One of the principal aims of the network is also one of its main drawbacks. Members are empowered to build their own brand (usually completely from scratch) so that they can market their products and services to locals and tourists, diversify their income, and eventually sustain their main activity (agricultural or artisan work). When members really understand the concept of collaboration and trust, they would be in a position to enjoy the long-term benefits. Conversely, when for various reasons members fail to realise the power of working within the network and aspire to embark on their own, there would be nothing stopping them from doing so.

As from the onset, our philosophy has been based on a 'personal relationship' model, because after all, that's what it really is. Amongst other things, healthy relationships need; mutual trust, empathy and good communication. Even though we don't like seeing members leave, when everything else fails there are no hard-feelings, and we would be content with the fact that Merill has actually contributed something to that member's success.

Although this 'hub and spoke' principle presents considerable challenges, and there has been our share of unwanted outcomes, after years of development we're convinced more than ever that this approach is one of the best models which works well for the Maltese community and its environmental needs, and one which ultimately allows the enterprise to reach its goals.