Supply Chain Expertise and Technology Blog by TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson

Delivering Relief

Efficient supply chains providing support

In the freight industry – or in western countries generally for that matter – a cross dock is not usually regarded as a life-saving device. But in Zambia the availability of a cross dock for a health care clinic will decrease the probability of a stock out of medicines by over 30 percent, a hike in efficiency that translates into saving the lives of 27,000 children in the next five years.

These figures were released recently by an international project to improve the supply of vital medications to poor countries through more efficient supply chains. The bureaucratic-sounding Zambia Access to Artemisinin-Based Combination Therapy (ACT) Initiative is jointly funded by the World Bank, USAID and the UK’s Department for International Development. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the MIT-Zaragoza Logistics Program provided technical support to the design of the program.

The pilot project is being carried out in 16 districts in Zambia. It is achieving remarkable results in a country where only 7 percent of children in rural areas receive pediatric malaria medicines within 24 hours of developing fever. Approximately 77,000 children under five years of age die in Zambia every year. An estimated 20 percent of these deaths are caused by malaria, and access to effective treatment is a major challenge.

The potential benefits of more efficient supply chains—in which orders based on actual needs pass quickly through district stores instead of lying there for weeks—extend well beyond pediatric malaria drugs. The same chains carry malaria preventives for pregnant women, antibiotics, and other critical supplies.

In the trial districts where supply chain improvements were introduced, pediatric malaria drugs are now available 345 days out of 365, with an average downtime of only 20 days a year. The availability in control districts was just 247 days. The availability of other drugs also increased in the pilot areas. Amoxicillin, a life-saving antibiotic that cures lower respiratory infections and other infections caused by HIV/AIDS, was available 92 percent of the time in the districts with the enhanced supply chain, compared to 63% of the time in other districts.

The Zambia project is one of a growing number of initiatives worldwide to develop better supply chains for aid programs. For example, work is going on in Haiti following the earthquake that devastated the island to design more effective warehouses. One goal is to reduce the amount of wastage when there is a sudden, overwhelming influx of aid cargo into an area with extremely poor infrastructure.

Why the upsurge in interest? It is not so much that humanitarian organizations have suddenly discovered the benefits of well-run supply chains and logistics operations. Agencies employ many specialists who do a heroic job establishing supply lines at virtually no notice in places where even a dirt road is something of a luxury. What is different is that a lot more attention is being paid to applying commercial supply chain management methods in the humanitarian sector.

These methods are a routine part of company operations; using a cross dock to improve the flow of goods is hardly cutting edge practice in the for-profit world. But in disaster situations or where impoverished populations are in desperate need of medications it’s a different story. As professionals it is easy to take this expertise for granted, but in countries where supply chains are measured not just in miles but also in lives saved, the ability to deliver cargoes at the right time and location, on time and damage-free, is a precious commodity.

If you want to get involved in a worthy cause closer to home check out the Kicks for a Cure kickball tournament organized jointly by TMC and Chicago Bears tight end Greg Olsen. The annual event, which has raised $750,000 for charitable causes, will take place this year in support of the fight against cancer on July 10, 2010 in Chicago’s Grant Park. Please visit for more information.