Lessons From the Ebola Front Line

Lessons From the Ebola Front Line

Effective supply chain planning can improve the delivery of humanitarian programs
Supply chain planning methods developed during the Ebola crisis could  improve the delivery of humanitarian programs

The dramatic fall in the number of Ebola cases in the three West African countries hit worst by the epidemic in 2014, appears to signal that the disease has been defeated. But the World Health Organization’s latest Ebola Situation Report warns that more cases are likely to appear.

A supply chain designed to support the Ebola relief operation in 2014/2015 played a key role in responding to the crisis. The lessons learned from that initiative will help responders to act quickly should another outbreak threaten, and improve the efficiency of future humanitarian supply chains.

In November 2014 experts from ACCEL (the Academic Consortium Combating Ebola in Liberia) met in Boston, US, to draw up a unique plan to help combat the deadly outbreak.  ACCEL included the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Boston’s Children’s Hospital, the Liberia College of Physicians and Surgeons, MIT CTL, and Avenir Analytics.

The aim was to support the provision of infection protection and control training in Liberia. Many of the country’s medical facilities were closed or severely constrained because resources had been diverted to the treatment of Ebola. Healthcare workers lacked the training and equipment that would enable them to function during the crisis. ACCEL sought to fill this gap.

Businesses routinely plan operations based on actual demand or agreed-upon sales forecasts. But these practices are less evident in international emergency response because donors typically release funds after crises situations have begun and ramp up aid in the immediate aftermath.  As a result, in the hectic initial stages of a response, the need to build supply chain planning into programs is often overlooked.

The ACCEL team intended to avoid this misstep. Its experts combined knowledge of the Liberian health community and of commercial and humanitarian logistics capacity. Its initial plan had three components.

First, to work directly with the Liberian Ministry of Health to prioritize efforts based on budget constraints, and providing resources for 16 out of 21 government hospitals. Training would be delivered in one week, and a three-month supply of protective equipment and water sanitation items would arrive with the team.

Second, the team developed a demand plan based on several factors such as the number of hospital beds, surgeries, and childbirths. The hospitals were classified according to size, and each facility would receive standard kits.

The third component was a supply plan. Existing resources such as Logistics Cluster – a coordination body established by the international humanitarian community – were incorporated in the supply chain design.

The program was launched in January 2015. It was not easy to find suppliers that could meet the required product specifications and delivery targets, but a large-scale commercial distributor was found. The distributor used its relationships with large manufacturers to find capacity for products that were in high demand. Another issue was that air transportation capacity was limited because most commercial airlines had suspended flights to stricken areas. ACCEL used new air-bridge capacity that was created in response to the outbreak.

Shipments commenced out of Miami, US, on January 11, 2015, and the first hospital delivery was completed on January 16.

The logistics team developed three core processes. Thirteen out of the 68 SKUs required were sourced locally, to cut costs and ensure that the right products were procured. Also, an auditable process for local procurement was developed. The second process involved an agreement with the Logistics Cluster to store product and provide truck transportation. Thirdly, vehicles from other United Nations programs were transferred to the effort, to provide safe transportation for the supplies.

The lessons learned will be invaluable in the planning and execution of future humanitarian programs. For example, ACCEL’s mix of core competencies enabled the team not only to develop an effective supply chain, but to update the operational plan on the fly as needed. Also, partnering with in-country organizations helped the team to scale-up its operations rapidly.

Consistent and coordinated demand and supply planning was key to maximizing the project’s impact. Another critical element was investing in planning and information systems, and in training professionals to use them.

The ACCEL supply chain was designed to be rapid and temporary – the insights gained will benefit humanitarian responders for a long time.

This post is based on the article Supply Chains in Crisis by Dr. Jarrod Goentzel, Director of the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab, MIT CTL, and Ian Heigh, Head of Planning and Operation Support, Avenir Analytics. The article appears in Inside Logistics, July 2015, published by the Institute for Supply Management. See the full article here.



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