The warehouse is a shed in a blisteringly hot desert, and the product is an urgent vaccine destroyed by heat. That is the type of challenge faced by Chris Houston, as a logistician for Médecins Sans Frontières.
Working on disease and social health projects with the medical aid agency has lead Houston from being a risk consultant in the city, to deserts in Nigeria and the jungle of Papua New Guinea.
With anywhere from months to hours to plan, Houston is despatched into a humanitarian project along with a team of three to seven medical staff, for around nine months. Each country will have a co-ordinator for logistics, medicine, HR and finance. But on the ground, the logistician is in charge of everything non-medical: vehicles, finance, HR, admin, construction, maintenance and all that goes in and out of a camp.
MSF supplies all resources, drugs, and equipment for building and running treatment centres. “We have a vaccination kit with everything you’d need to set up a vaccination infrastructure for 10,000 people.” It is Houston’s job to make sure the correct kits are in stock, and delivered wherever and whenever needed.
In Nigeria, the 12x24m storage facility gives a new perspective to the term shed. Racking consists of wooden planks, and material handling is covered by the team with their hands. Houston says “The warehouse equipment we have is Sellotape, knives, a computer and printer.”
But even in comparatively basic conditions working with pharmaceuticals is exacting. Most medicines need to be kept below 25oC, some must be chilled between 10-15oC, and others between 2-8oC. The most critical and expensive, such as vaccines, will be destroyed if subjected to the wrong conditions for even a minute.
Maintaining these standards is unsurprisingly, a tricky business. Generators cannot be relied on, and so fridges must be ice-lined to withstand periods without power.
Stock is carefully controlled. There is a database that allows Houston to monitor every movement. Everything from pens and paracetamols, to Toyota Landcruisers has a product code. In addition, Houston conducts a full physical stock count of the warehouse every three months, covering a few hundred SKUs.
When a doctor requires something, Houston inputs the order to the database. This produces a paper stock request for the warehouse manager who retrieves and delivers the items. Useful as the database is, it is not integrated with any handy WMS tools.
To order stock, Houston sends an email to MSF’s Amsterdam HQ. They procure and ship the supplies – a process which takes some three months. In the fraught circumstances logisticians like Houston can find themselves, this is somewhat less than ideal.
He says his biggest logistical challenge is planning with sufficient detail that you can anticipate the requirements “because it’s essentially the impossible task”. So would logistics and supply chain professionals be useful to humanitarian operations like these? “Absolutely. People forget that to be effective as medics you need to have professional logisticians behind you.” He says a mix of mechanical, IT, managerial and administrative skills are all invaluable to deliver help effectively. Locally employed staff run operations full time, and their local knowledge is a golden asset for workers like Houston who will only be in one project for nine months or so.
For example, he once planned to build some timber walls, before local staff pointed out that in Nigeria bricks are cheaper, with the added bonus of being heat and termite resistant. “A Scottish solution is not going to work in Nigeria.”
So next time you bewail a faulty IT system, or a late delivery, just imagine how much more challenging it could be.