Highlands' journey from a Nyeri store to a soda maker

Popular: Some of the juice products by Highlands Mineral Water Company. The firm has recently launched soda products as well.
Popular: Some of the juice products by Highlands Mineral Water Company. The firm has recently launched soda products as well.

Mirinda and Babito were soda brands that were well known in the late 70s, in the 80s and early 90s. To this day, anybody who lived in those times still remembers them. They were popular just like Coca cola but unlike the Coke brand, this soda tale has its genesis from a small shop in Nyeri that was set up 60 years ago.

Though the Babito brand is no longer in the market, the producer Highlands Mineral Water Company is still a force to reckon with in the soft drinks market.

Highlands did not start out as a soft drinks maker but a shop in Nyeri in 1947 known as Padia Stores founded by Tribhovan Padia, the grandfather of the firm's current CEO Ashin Padia.

"Highlands is by many accounts and parameters a pioneer beverage company in Kenya. It has a strong and undeniable Kenyan origin having began operations over 60 Years. Highlands boasts of a wide portfolio, of water and juices as well as a workforce of more than 400 staff, as well as creating more than 4,000 indirect jobs," says Padia.

Padia Stores transformed into a drinks manufacturing venture when Nyeri town started getting electricity connections, an opportunity that the senior Padia promptly seized, to take on giant multinationals such as Coca Cola in the soda and soft drinks market.

It became Highlands Mineral Water company in 1954 after years of gradual transformation from a general shop to a small scale drinks factory after investment in machines and a lab to enable it become a manufacturer.

Highlands has a strong position in the juice market with its brands such as Tropical Cordial, Pineapple and Orange among others that unseated the 90s popular juice Quencher. To date, despite new entrants like Kevian's Afia which have also caused ripples in the market, Highlands brands are still dominant fighting it out with its long term competitor Coca Cola and other new ones.

It has revived the soda business with introduction of Club Soda range of products which include:cola, orange and lemon variants which were introduced in May 2014. Owing to the growth of its initial brands, Club Soda last month introduced Tangawizi variant which CEO Padia says is optimistic will do very well in the market.

"The uptake of Club Soda brands has honestly surpassed our expectations, thanks to our consumers who continue to give us useful feedback about our different brands. We are happy to report that independent Nielsen Research ranks us number two in the one way segment," adds Padia.

According to Euromonitor International, a research firm that compiles various market data, the soft drinks sector posted a positive current value growth in 2014 despite prevailing internal insecurity issues that have led to a rise in political temperatures in the country which rattled some industries.

The growth in the soft drinks market last year was supported by prolonged hot weather in the country, affordable product pricing and increased marketing by expanding market players which boosted sales.

"We did an internal research, and established that consumers were in need of a good quality yet affordable soft drink. We also seek to democratise consumption of Club Soda Drinks in Kenya, and make Club Soda a soft drink which is affordable to every Kenyan," Padia reckons.

The three soda brands by Highlands, that is, cola, lemon, lime and orange are available in 300ml, 500ml and 1.25 litre plastic bottles.

A litre of Club Soda costs Sh99 while 300ml goes for Sh25.

"As a player in this market we have learnt that consumers are willing and able to embrace a good brand with the right quality, with the right taste profile and right price," Padia says.

According to the Economic Survey report for 2014 by Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, production of soda grew by 6.4 per cent to stand at 405.5 million litres while manufacture of mineral water rose 10.9 per cent in 2013.

Although a very lucrative market, the cut-throat competition means that various companies struggle with brand recognition in this business, especially given the well-financed marketing programmes by giant Coca Cola.

Highlands, on its part, says it has widely enjoyed support over the years with its juice brands because of its roots in Kenya.

"Highlands brand is of Kenyan Origin and this means that we have nowhere to go but here. A lot of investment has also been put in, in the 60 years we have been around. As a mitigation measure, we watch trends o as well as follow successful brands. We also take seriously feedback from our consumers, be it positive or negative," Padia says.

Padia who is overseeing the family business' revival of soda ventures briefly lived in the UK before relocating to Kenya in six years ago. He is keen to rejuvenate business and keep it going for decades to come just as his grandfather envisioned. And just as the firm's founder, senior Padia, took on Coca Cola, the younger business executive believes he also has what it takes to sustain the scramble for the soda market with the multinational. After all, it has been done before by his kinsman.