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West Virginia's Tumai water brings hope to Africa

WaterWebster staff report

April 2, 2008

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Bob Downey is exporting hope from Martinsburg, West Virginia to South Africa and other areas of the African continent, one sip at a time.

Downey created the Spero Group after working as an engineer on a project in Africa and seeing the kind of help that many in Africa need. In Latin, the word spero means hope.

The Spero Group in turn formed the nonprofit bottled water company Tumai, which is Swahili for “to hope for.”

At least 15% of the profits from sales of the bottled water are used “specifically to fund the projects we do in Africa,” said Downey, 40, who is married and the father of two children. Those projects include assistance for two orphanages in South Africa and work with groups like Engineers Without Borders in other parts of Africa.

Among the projects the bottled water sales help underwrite are permanent drinking water well systems and improved sanitation, Downey said.

The fight against HIV/AIDS is included within programs that are assisted by sales of Tumai water. As of 2005, South Africa alone had an estimated 1.2 million orphans under age 17 who lost one or both parents to AIDS, according to the United Nations and World Health Organization. Nationwide, 5.5 million people were believed to be infected with the HIV virus.

Many of those in orphanages supported by Tumai water sales are there because one or both of their parents died of AIDS, said Downey. And many of the children themselves are HIV positive or have AIDS.

Proceeds from bottled water sales also help pay for training so children in the orphanages can earn a living when they’re grown, Downey said, and some of the money goes simply for basics, like sandals.

Mindful of the corruption that, in many parts of Africa, sucks money from government and charity programs, Downey emphasizes “we want people to know that their money is going to go where they want it to go.”

To help ensure that Tumai can follow through on its promises, two of the Spero Group directors are based in South Africa.

Founded in 2006, Tumai bottles its natural water from a spring in Alton, Virginia. It currently is available in the West Virginia area although the company is working with distributors in other areas in an effort to expand.

And those expansion efforts received a big boost in February when the two-year-old charity water won the oldest water tasting contest in the U.S.

The Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Awards were begun 18 years ago in the resort community not far from Tumai’s Martinsburg, West Virginia headquarters.

The big international water bottlers like Coca-Cola and Pepsi don’t compete, but runners-up in Tumai’s non-carbonated category came from Colorado and Canada as well as a hometown entry from Berkeley Springs.

Tumai’s visibility as a charity water was enhanced when the Associated Press and other news organizations reported its gold medal victory.

Taste is subjective, as Downey readily acknowledges, but he said the publicity surrounding the Tumai victory has helped it spread the word about what the company is trying to accomplish.

“It gave exposure to the water and the issues we deal with,” said Downey. “So many people don’t understand the issues in Africa. Every purchase of Tumai goes to help those issues.”

©2008 WaterWebster.org

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