Former Gwinnett student starts water-selling business in Ghana

Max DeCook, Andres Herrera and Diana Lunt celebrate Herrera’s winning logo for West Hall High School’s first student design contest. Arlinda Smith Broady/abroady@ajc.com
Max DeCook, Andres Herrera and Diana Lunt celebrate Herrera’s winning logo for West Hall High School’s first student design contest. Arlinda Smith Broady/abroady@ajc.com

It was not just Max DeCook’s life that changed for the better when the former Gwinnett County student turned his life around.

On March 30, he announced the winner of the logo design at a regional high school contest for a business that he c0-founded in West Africa which is bringing better health to families there.

The young man had been headed down a path of destruction, but learned instead to build something positive. And while that same young man left childish ways behind, he set the stage for another youngster to realize a design talent that could shape his future.

Two years ago, now 17-year-old DeCook was on a downward spiral of drug abuse that led to truancy, bouts of staying away from home for days at a time, health concerns and eventually an arrest. Bouncing from local schools to a private school in Utah helped, but once he returned home, DeCook hooked up with the same group that influenced his bad decisions.

“Hanging with the same people was part of it, but I was also very immature,” said DeCook. “I didn’t want to grow up or change.”

The DeCook family met Ghana native Stephen Aboagye at church in Braselton. He became a positive influence in DeCook’s life and helped steer him away from the destructive path. While DeCook was in Utah, Aboagye, who had moved there the previous year, made a point to visit with him and strengthen their friendship.

When Aboagye mentioned that he’d be returning to Ghana, DeCook’s parents thought that would be a great experience for their son and a way to show him that he should appreciate his blessings. The DeCook family spent a week and a half with Aboagye in his country, helping out in a local orphanage.

Away from the drugs and and aimlessness of his U.S. life, DeCook realized that while he had so much, people half a world away had to worry about basic necessities. With the growing urbanization of Ghana, clean drinking water is harder to come by. According to the nonprofit Water.org, 70 percent of all diseases in Ghana are the result of unsafe water and poor sanitation.

The logo for Eternal Water.
The logo for Eternal Water.

He’d seen a water facility for sale in Ghana and asked his parents if he could start a business with Aboagye selling water. Before they agreed, DeCook had to prove he’d changed. Back in Georgia, he enrolled in Braselton Christian Academy and work so hard at being a stand-out student, he graduated a semester early — Dec. 15, 2017.

Having kept his end of the bargain, his parents gave him the financial support to get the business going. After more research, DeCook and Aboagye decided they’d rather start the business from scratch than try to resurrect an existing one.

In January the company began drilling for fresh water in a country suffering through drought. They now have two 650-foot wells. The business employees 20 people to purify the water and package it for sale in 500 ml satchets. It is then sold to restaurants and retail shops. They also use street vendors and sell directly to families. Each sachet costs the equivalent of an American nickel.

The entrepreneurs wanted to stand out among many water vendors of varying reputations. They came up with the name Eternal Water and approached a Georgia friend of the family to design a logo.

That friend was Diana Lunt, who’s a teacher at West Hall High School. She thought of pitching the project to her students to provide real-life business experience.

The students had a client meeting, where they asked questions of what DeCook was looking for, said Lunt. “The students had to dress professionally, learn to shake hands correctly and make eye contact when speaking.”

From there, students created initial sketchbooks to create word lists, research notes, mood boards, thumbnails and rough drafts. Eternal Water provided feedback for each student.

After six weeks of work, DeCook proclaimed 10th-grader Andres Herrera the winner. Besides a $150 Visa gift card and other prizes, Herrera’s design will be used in all Eternal Water communications including letterhead, labels and advertising.

Lunt explained that his design encompassed everything the company was looking for — simple, easy to identify and easy to replicate.

“I was worried that I’d given the students too big of a challenge,” said Lunt. “But they listened to the feedback, made the changes and developed great concepts.”

As a first-year design student, Herrera said he’s glad he chose the course.

“It was a lot of work, but I think this is something that I might want to do as a career,” he said.

DeCook is headed back to Ghana, where he now spends most of his time. He said he won’t ever go back to his old ways now that he has greater purpose.

“This is my baby. Our company is providing a resource and creating jobs,” said DeCook. “I have too much responsibility now to ever think about turning back. If this hadn’t saved me, I might have ended up in jail or dead.”

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