Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Fancying Opening Mansa Batteries: An Economic Myopia

Unless Spark Batteries evolves to the new technology, it may just be another political nostalgia that turns out a failed venture, like Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia which will soon be on rocks because it survives on government grant to produce and the customer who bought the fertiliser is the same government

By Nyalubinge Ngwende
Zambia once produced dry cells at Mansa Batteries

When Mansa Batteries was closed, Luapula province in Northeast Zambia was left without any manufacturing industry. A lot of jobs were lost while the country lost its only dry cell making company.

Lately there has been some fancy about reopening the battery-making plant. The fancy is so high on the minds of the young people, who want employment in the Luapula province, and on the minds of politicians, who seek to garner political mileage out of the venture that gave Mansa a sparkle of economic development. The company built beautiful houses and accommodate its workers and gave the town a two storey building guest house where the affluent spent their evenings dinning and winning.
Vice president Guy Scott has announced plans by government to resuscitate Mansa Batteries.

While on a campaign trail in the just ended Mansa Central parliamentary by-election, Dr Scott said government envied that state owned companies like Mansa Batteries were brought to life like in it has done in the case of Nitrogen Chemicals.

Dr Scott told Mansa residents that government is convinced that there is still sufficient Manganese in Luapula Province to resuscitate Mansa Batteries.

Dr Scott believes by bringing to life Mansa Batteries, government will be fulfilling its promise of reducing unemployment levels in the province and the country as whole. “The PF government will now cut down on making rhetorical speeches about what it is able to do to concentrate on implementing developmental projects it has planned in fulfilling the promises it made to the people in the country.”

However, if anyone is to think about reviving Spark, as Mansa Batteries was fondly known by its trademark product of dry cells, they must first have a second thought; scan the environment about what has changed so much on the market about the devices that were powered by the cells.

The economic sense of manufacturing batteries from Mansa was that it had high grade manganese which made 5 percent of the raw materials required to produce the dry cells. At the time Zambia also had low coverage of electricity to homes, meaning that most devices like radios and record players in homes that had them depended on these cells. With trade barriers for imports, people in the country were left with no alternative but to buy Spark.

Today the powering of devices has changed. In the face of increased use of solar power, it means people who are not connected to electricity can make a one-off purchase of a solar panel and rely on free sunlight to recharge it for years and still enjoy their favourite programmes on radio and music from their CD players.

It is even becoming more challenging to think of opening a batteries company in the 21st Century closed two decades ago to start producing batteries that run out in less than a week and you need to spend more. People would not need dry batteries anymore, if they did, they would buy rechargeable batteries for their digital devices. In fact lithium batteries are seen as durable, other than alkaline type that Mansa Batteries produced.  But can Mansa Batteries produce the lithium type without going into Foreign Exchange problems importing 95 percent of the raw materials other than the Manganese that the town boasts of in abundance?  

To look at Mansa Batteries as an easy way out of keeping the Patriotic Front support in Luapula can be costly, unless this country invests in research and starts producing 95 percent of the inputs in the batteries and integrate the industries that will contribute parts to the final product to quality that can enter the markets of neighbouring countries. Without that it is strongly doubtful if the ROI to reopen Mansa Batteries for nostalgia will be realised.

As pointed out, Zambians are not consuming more batteries as they did in the 80s and early 90s. This brings us to think deeper, hence the need for those edging to reopen Spark Batteries to innovate the products they will produce or all together forget about the whole revival sentimentality.

I can bet my head that a company that ventures into making freezits or fruit juice has a high growth potential, with the right capital injection in terms of technology as well as knowledge in product development, packaging and marketing than the emotive pursuit to put Mansa Batteries on its old production line.

Instead of struggling with the science of finding materials to cut on the imported inputs required in making competitive batteries, growing fruits and a drinks industry that can meet local and international market standards should be troubling Chanda Kasolo at present. Fish farming can be another area where he could put his energies so that the groups can start supplying chain stores outside Luapula where fish is bought like hot cake.

Other suggestions for Mansa provincial administration and Dr Scott are that Mansa Batteries has a crusher that can be turned into stone crushing and other equipment that can make paving blocks for the link Zambia. Therefore the project in Northern, Luapula and part of the Copperbelt can be fed from the Mansa Batteries.

If not, if there is another industrial use for crushed and processed Manganese, former Mansa Batteries can be converted to produce such to supply an available market. Using the Mansa manganese for pharmaceutical products for export could even be a venture that can be profitable than the wild dreams of producing dry cells.

Unless Spark Batteries evolves to the new technology, it may just be another political nostalgia that turns out a failed venture, like Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia which will soon be on rocks because it survives on government grant to produce and the customer who bought the fertiliser is the same government. This makes it difficult for one to understand the rhetoric of government that the fertiliser parastatal is viable.
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