Paka Power! That was the catchline that, for many years, sold one of Kenya’s most recognisable brands, Eveready batteries.
The creators of the promo called the batteries Eveready Super 99, and their advertising campaigns always had a cat jumping over the numeral nine, an artist’s play on the proverbial nine lives of a cat to indicate how long the batteries lasted.
And last long they did, but not long enough to ward off competition from cheaper imports. This week that cat breathed its last, finally giving up the fight after years of squaring it out with the competition.
The Eveready plant in Nakuru is no longer a tenable business, and the managers have decided to shut it down, bringing down the curtain on the Paka’s life.
To most Kenyans — and indeed East Africans — who remember the years gone by, however, the end of the Paka Power era comes with nostalgic memories.
Broadcaster Fred Obachi Machoka, the man who gave the D-batteries a powerful voice, is livid now.
LIVID AND NOSTALGIC
Livid and nostalgic, for he ran a must-listen-to programme on the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation radio, then Voice of Kenya, in the 1970s and 1980s, called Sanyo Juu, Sanyo Tops.
The promo was also pegged on Kungfu, a Chinese dance in fashion to resonate with the youth at the time, whose record-players were using the batteries (Eveready! Kungfu for Power!)
Sanyo, the Japanese transistor radio manufacturer, had partnered with Eveready to promote each other in the programme in a move that Sanyo hoped would fight off competition from Philips.
Many in the villages would tune in to VoK in the evening to listen to Machoka as he boomed “Sanyo Juu, Sanyo Tops! Eveready Super 99! Nguvu kama Paka Power!”.
“The golden days of Paka Power made us what we are today,” says Machoka. “The batteries will forever remain embedded in our minds and in the history of energy manufacturers. I relished the programme, I enjoyed every bit of it and on the streets I was even nicknamed ‘The Paka Power Man’.”
For 47 years, Eveready lit Kenya and changed the lives of many across the country, and across classes.
It was the only source of what manufacturers and green campaigners today call “old energy”, a type of labour-intensive, expensive and environmentally demanding energy that is quickly being replaced by “greener” versions stored in tiny chips.
Eveready, like Kenya Breweries’ Tusker Lager at the time, was the true leveller.
It afforded the hip university student the chance to prance around the village with a transistor radio booming Franco or the Beatles at bone-conduction level, the professor a chance to sit outside his home in the evening to listen to Machoka and his colleagues, and the farmer the chance to till his land as Soukouss music entertained him in the background.
It was the preferred brand inside portable torches, both in the village and in the city, and every shopkeeper worth his or her salt had to stock the dry cells.
But trends come and go, and today dry cells are no longer that attractive. People still listen to music on the go, but this time the radios are powered by rechargeable, tiny lithium batteries embedded in mobile phones, iPods and such.
People still use torches at home, but these get their power directly from the sun using innovative solar technology, or, again, from rechargeables.
And electricity has now reached the villages too, doing away with the need to keep purchasing dry cells to pack into your small Sony radio.
FATHERS OF IPOD
The leaps that energy technology has made over the years are captured well by Apple vice-president Tony Fadell, who is often referred to as “one of the fathers of the iPod” for his work on the first version of Apple’s venerable music player, in an interview earlier this year with the New York Times.
Fadell said that they had tried for many years to build a smarter battery by adding solar charging to iPhones and iPods, but the method never proved practical, he said, because mobile devices often stay inside pockets when people are outdoors, and indoor artificial light generates only a tiny amount of energy.
These days, Apple’s latest products, including its newest MacBook Airs, iPads and iPhones, rely more on energy-efficient processors and software algorithms to save power than on the battery itself.
Another experiment at Apple has involved charging the battery through movement, a method that is already used in many modern watches.
A person’s arm swinging could operate a tiny charging station that generates and pushes power to the device while walking, according to a patent filed by Apple in 2009.
In July last year, Apple was awarded a patent for a flexible battery that could fit in a wristwatch or tablet. Although the battery would be traditional, it would have a thin and curved form that could easily couple with a flexible solar panel layer.
So, solar panels, body movements and software algorithms. Clearly, Eveready had little chance of surviving if it did not change tack.
But, still, in its heyday Paka Power fought a vigorous marketing war that it won hands-down.
It’s logo — the black cat jumping through the loop of the figure 9 — gave it easy recognisability at the marketplace. It also fought other brands with aggressive marketing promotions in villages using mobile cinemas and Machoka’s radio show.
Eveready competed with National batteries, the green-coloured brand from Tanzania, which had dominated the Eastern Africa market prior to ’67, when the company was incorporated.
Together with the Philips brand from Holland, the two dominated the market before and after independence in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
But, by using innovative marketing strategies, Eveready outsmarted National, which had gained reputation for manufacturing long-life batteries.
Soon, National and Philips batteries found the going tough and retreated, before finally disappearing from the market altogether.
But with the exit of competition Eveready entered its second and dangerous era — that of monopoly.
And that, coupled with the competition that managing director Jackson Mutua cited this week while announcing the closure of the Nakuru plant, sounded the death knell for the brand.
Now the firm will import the cells from its affiliate in Egypt, Energizer, for local sale.
Whether this move makes economic sense for both the company and the country can only be analysed by economists.
But whether the Kenya government erred in abandoning the protectionist economic policies to parry competition is a matter of conjecture as such policies also failed in the developed world and were abandoned in favour of liberalisation.
From monopoly, Eveready now joins others in the graveyards to which they have been swept by cheap imports, mainly from China.
The textile industry was the first casualty to suffer following the importations of mitumba (second-hand clothes) that came with the liberalisation of the economy in the 1980s.
Yuken, a clothing factory in Thika that ran a number of shops, is also no more, just like the East African Bag and Cordage, which used to manufacture sisal bags. Others include East African Fine Spinners, Kenya Taitex, Kicomi and Rivatex.