Closing the Gap: Marketing Firm and Indigenous Community Team Up for Bottled Water Campaign

They are unlikely partners.

But a remote Northern Territory Indigenous family and a Sydney marketing firm have teamed up for an ambitious plan to bottle water from an Arnhem Land spring for distribution across Australia.

It is one of the latest projects resulting from renewed efforts by Indigenous groups to get their communities off welfare.

Springwater from the Muntjawuy community, 170 kilometres from Nhulunbuy, has long had cultural significance for the extended family who live there, and it is renowned across Arnhem Land.

“The spring is famous for its quality and it’s also got a bit of a meaning in terms of the water as a metaphor for knowledge,” agricultural scientist Rod Baker said.

“So the mixing of the waters, the mixing of different languages, European and Yolngu, but also different clan languages as well.”

He was adopted by the family after coming to the community to teach eight years ago, and is helping them with their plan to build a bottling plant in Muntjawuy.

“We were looking for a business model with sufficient margins and a robust enough production system that was going to work in that situation,” he said.

“This project addresses the driving factors behind the Closing the Gap issues, the socio-economic issues. It’s a viable business model, so once it’s up and going, it’s self sustaining.”

Dependency on ‘fickle’ welfare

The community desperately needs the business.

Members of the Muntjawuy community walk towards a house

“The most difficult thing is having a stable population. There is effectively zero employment in the community there,” he said.

“The family lives very much below the poverty line, apart from one assistant teacher position, all the revenue for the families are through welfare, which is fickle to say the least.”

Community members are drifting away to Nhulunbuy, where their young people are coming into contact with alcohol and drugs.

Muntjawuy does not have enough pupils to justify government funding for teachers.

Teacher Yilki Guyula had to move away to a larger community to get work.

“I am really worried about the education because we don’t have enough money,” she said.

“I was working at the school, but there wasn’t enough money to pay, that’s why I work at Yirrkala school now.

“The bottling business was my mother’s vision, to use this knowledge water business to support our bilingual education.”

“And so my family can stay together in Muntjawuy, to get away from, like alcohol, and other things in town.”

The family plan to plough profits into their school.

“Initially in the form of paying a teacher to be there so we can ensure there’s quality education happening,” Mr Baker said.

They have invested their own money, gained the promise of a Federal Government grant, and are planning to crowd fund, to pay for the bottling plant.

‘Like putting a bottling plant on Mars’

The family is partnering with a Sydney marketing company Elevencom.

A freshwater spring at Muntjawuy

“There is no doubt it’s a big challenge, we’ve often said its like putting a bottling plant on Mars,” Elevencom’s director of creative strategy Jono McMcauley said.

“But we think if we can get this project off the ground it will succeed.”

He is confident they will be able to break into the fiercely competitive bottled water market.

“Around the world we are seeing the rise of the ethical consumer, and that’s being driven across lots of demographics, but particularly with millennials,” he said.

“They’re looking for value but they’re also looking for organisations and products that support their values.”

The partners realise they face huge challenges to avoid becoming the latest in a long line of failed remote businesses — from aquaculture ventures to mines.

“It does have enough margin to make up for the remoteness — one of the big challenges is obviously going to be transport,” Mr Baker said.

Tough margins in remote business

They have a first foot in the door.

Indigenous boy stands by the ocean

The Indigenous-owned Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation is offering to sell the water in its network of Northern Territory and Queensland remote stores.

“The Government talks about Closing the Gap, and for us, that’s real because people are dying way too young,” the corporation’s chief executive Alastair King said.

“We sell water cheaply out in Arnhem Land to drive consumption because it’s much healthier.”

Mr King said the two ideas meshed because of their focus around jobs, skills, education and economic development.

“It’s what we’re all working on in the region, because clearly the Government can’t do it on their own. We’ve got to build businesses and build an economy to move people off social welfare,” he said.

The corporation has established a series small remote businesses in Arnhem Land, including a furniture factory.

“It’s really tough. Everything you do out bush is more expensive, building, operating, power, everything is more expensive,” he said.

“You’ve got to be careful that you do your due diligence and your business planning well, so that the outcomes are there, and they are sustainable.

“Because Aboriginal people have heard it all before, they’ve been disappointed plenty of times, that this is going to be the next big thing, and then it isn’t.”

‘Lost generation disengaged from education’

Mr King says one of the biggest challenges is convincing young people its worth finishing their education and getting trained.

An aboriginal child sits on the floor of a classroom

“In the ’80s and ’90s I believe that we lost a generation through social welfare, they just disengaged,” he said.

“So we need to be committed to education and grabbing young people as soon as they finish school and transitioning them to a job.”

Other Indigenous organisations, including the Northern Land Council, are lobbying for more government assistance for remote start ups.

Its chief executive Joe Morrison is hoping the Federal Government will make sure more can access funds such as the North Australian Infrastructure Facility low-cost loan scheme.

“Aboriginal people have a whole range of aspirations ranging from cattle enterprises, to harvesting buffalo for Asian markets and agricultural enterprises,” he said.

“But it’s been very difficult to get these projects off the ground.”

‘Genuine partnership’

A group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous work partners stand together waving.

Mr McCauley thinks the spring water partners’ pooling of traditional knowledge and market expertise will be their biggest strength.

“This is a genuine partnership, this isn’t white fellas coming in to the community and saying ‘This is what we think you need to do, this is driven by the family’,” he said.

“It empowers that group and we think it’s a real role model for future projects.”

Ms Guyula hopes the project will enable her to return home to teach in a viable community.

“So we can keep our kids in our homeland to stay safe and get education for our future, for their future,” she said.