- Trucks are loaded with treated water to be delivered, eliminating the burden of water collection and reducing risk of spreading waterborne diseases.
When Tralance Addy ’73G, ’74G thinks of UMass Amherst in the early seventies, the first word that comes to his mind is “relevance.” “It was a big word among the student population at the time,” he says. “We wanted to make our education and our work mean something.”
Thirty-three years later, Addy’s work couldn’t be more relevant. His mission is bringing affordable clean water to the world. Even today, when many of his fellow Americans debate the merits of competing brands of bottled water and run their sprinklers indiscriminately, others spend hours daily struggling to obtain a safe drink of water. Waterborne diseases result in 3 to 5 million deaths and 3 billion illnesses worldwide each year. Addy and others predict that given increasing demands for and declining supplies of fresh water, there will be more local and global fights over water rights than over anything else in the 21st century.
Through the company he founded five years ago, Plebys International, 61-year-old Addy brings an unconventional, entrepreneurial eye to this ancient problem. He looked at the water crisis and saw not only a way to help slake the world’s thirst, but also an ethical investment opportunity. Plebys is using new technology to help poor people get clean water and also help them earn a profit from the process. Because the need for water is so great, Addy says, so are the business and humanitarian opportunities.
The low-cost, advanced technology behind this Plebys venture is an ultraviolet water disinfection system invented at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and developed by a California company called WaterHealth International. The system uses UV rays to kill microbial pathogens, such as those that cause deadly typhoid, cholera, and dysentery, in water. The system’s mechanics and Plebys’ business model are uncomplicated: The company installs a purification system, typically in a small rural village far from any central treatment plant, and teaches local people to operate and maintain it. User fees for the clean water, which amount to less than $2 per person per year, cover operating costs and the price of the system. Once the life-saving purifier is paid for, the village earns money from water sales.
“They gain, and we gain,” says Addy.
To date, Plebys and Water Health have installed water purification systems with the capacity to serve more than half a million people in India, Tibet, Mexico, South Africa, Tanzania, El Salvador, Bangladesh, Nepal, Uganda, and Haiti. And water is only the first and most elemental venture for Plebys; Addy plans to expand to hydration and IV therapy, infection prevention, portable diagnosis systems, and more.
Addy’s international background in science, engineering, and business is well suited to address the technological needs of the developing world. Born and raised in Ghana, he left to attend Swarthmore College, receiving undergraduate degrees in chemistry and engineering. He then came to UMass Amherst, where he earned a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1973 and a PhD in biomechanical engineering in 1974. After that, he went on to an impressive, 27-year corporate career at Scott Paper Company and healthcare products giant Johnson & Johnson. At the latter, his positions included international vice president, vice president of research and development for its medical group, and president of a subsidiary he established within the company to market sterilization products. Addy holds 13 United States and numerous international patents in both paper and medical-device technology.
Yet, even after all his globe-trotting, promotions, perks, and awards, Addy’s most fulfilling experience remained volunteering to help lay the bricks for a school in Ghana when he was 14. “To see a school where there wasn’t one before gave me a feeling of great satisfaction,” he says. He decided to leave Johnson & Johnson and put the talents he had developed toward galvanizing others to work at Plebys, a name derived from “plebeian,” meaning the common people.
Addy encourages others to follow his lead and work to meet the urgent needs of the poor. On a recent business trip, he left Plebys headquarters in Orange County, California, for the village of Bomminampadu in India’s state of Andra Pradesh to oversee installation of a water system and work out financing with the country’s largest bank. He flew to Sri Lanka to check on water purification systems in tsunami refugee and relocation camps; went on to the Philippines, where entrepreneurs in Manila own and operate WaterHealth bottled water stores; and finally to Mexico City to participate in a worldwide water conference.
Looking back at where he’s been and ahead toward his company’s plans, Addy calls himself “one of those people who aren’t attracted to easy tasks.” With an easy, rolling laugh, he adds. “I’m still trying to march to the word relevance.”