Africa Supply

That there are issues around transporting the Covid-19 vaccines around Africa is in no doubt. A lack of infrastructure, remote rural locations, the need for cold chain storage and under-developed supply chains will present challenges. But, says NACHI MENDELOW, if Africa gets this right, it will set the continent upon on a new and more efficient economic path.

Benjamin Kagina, Senior Research Officer for the Vaccines For Africa Initiative housed in UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, put it in a nutshell when he recently told The Conversation, “Most low-income countries do not have the necessary cold chain infrastructure for storing and distributing this vaccine. Vaccines that require standard refrigeration conditions, like many of those used in existing immunisation programmes in these countries, would be easiest to deliver. The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is one.”

Of course, it’s now common knowledge that South Africa’s delivery of one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine was declared null and void after scientists said it would be less effective on the South African variant of Covid-19. The country then offered its stash to the African Union for distribution to other countries on the continent.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is now being used in South Africa. It had been trialed in Africa. “If the vaccine is proven to be safe and effective, it will be the easiest to distribute as it requires the standard refrigeration. And more importantly, it requires just one dose, which is logistically easier to deliver,” said Kagina.

The importance of delivering the all important vaccines across Africa – from the biggest cities to the smallest rural outposts – safely, at the right temperatures, to the right storage facilities and then distributing them to millions upon millions of people cannot be underestimated.

But it’s not just the physical logistics of distributing the vaccine that are vital. It’s the digital supply chain too. We don’t just move goods anymore. We move information. And what I mean by that is bookings are made on airlines and shipping lines, ports, ground handlers, container yards, road carriers, cold store facilities, and more.

The information is needed to ensure the goods flow seamlessly. A good digital supply chain means everyone knows what to do. Everyone is co-ordinated, and there is visibility, transparency and reporting, which is especially important with something like a vaccine, something that requires cold chain and has to be maintained within specific temperature ranges.

As a global provider of software systems that improve the world’s supply chains, we work to replace ageing, legacy, proprietary and domestic systems with efficient, highly automated and integrated global capabilities, and we’re fortunate in many ways to see a lot of what’s going on in terms of the supply chain and the topic of supply chains and vaccines in Africa.

It’s is something we [South Africa and Africa] simply have to get it right, because I don’t know about you, but I really want to have that jab. But I also want to have the vaccine with confidence, and with the knowledge that there was an unbroken chain from point of origin to point of usage, and that it has not been violated or broken in any way.

No single set of rules for Africa’s supply chains

But of course there are challenges, as each country in Africa is different, and has different infrastructure. There’s no single set of rules for this particular supply chain.

I believe South Africa has an important role to play on the continent. We’ve done some incredible things. What a lot of people don’t realise is that we delivered the largest free drug rollout in the world and are specialists in getting our HIV/Aids vaccines into rural areas. We have good supply chains.

South Africa can play at a bigger level than just in South Africa, because this is a global challenge and we all have to step up to it. And South Africa can do a lot, at least for Sub-Saharan Africa. We can also be an example, not just to Africa, but also to the world, in terms of pulling together and not being divisive.

To get this right, and to create strategic, inclusive and sustainable supply chains, there needs to be very serious focus and collaboration. Something like the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which is being signed by pretty much the whole of Africa, could work in terms of collaborating and improving trade.

My concern, however, is that as we start moving across our borders, and as we start moving into landlocked countries, this means the goods (vaccines) may have to land at other ports and move across land and borders.

Then you need governments to co-operate because if we have delays at the borders, the vaccines will be affected. And then there’s the electricity issue because the vaccines have to be refrigerated, and refrigerated vehicles need electricity. Then we move into language barriers because now we are talking about Africa with 54 countries, with numerous borders and customs authorities, myriads of languages … what we are talking about is a very interlinked, challenging problem, which we need to get right.

To do so, an interesting combination is required combining everything from hardware – because there are devices required to measure temperatures and provide tracking – to software, because the device needs some software to manage the processes. Then politics and economics are involved, as governments must work together to ensure the smooth flow of goods. Then there are things like communication and internet access, because how is that piece of information going to be shared with the world? Finally, it comes down to people because people obviously have to be trained to achieve these things.

Developing a supply chain legacy

All this means we have to create a supply chain that can deliver what I’ve just mentioned across Africa. If we rise to this challenge right now, the legacy that we leave behind will be a cold chain that stretches across Africa, and reaches all rural areas. This then would be used beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, and could be used for delivering of food, products, aid or medicines.

So, like the rest of the world, Africa has to improve its digital supply chains. Some of the work we’re doing is integrating with a number of customs offices across Africa. Being able to use a single system to communicate with the local customs engine is vital for the smooth flow of goods – and vaccines.

Asycuda is a customs engine, developed by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), the World Customs Organisation (WSO) and the United Nations. And it’s used by 90+ developing countries, territories and regions around the world so as to ensure those countries have an electronic customs clearance system. That’s powerful.

In order to have a really good informational supply chain, you have to have really good sharing of information across that supply chain, with everyone either using the same system or at least sharing information back into one system so that we have digital visibility… that’s really what we’re trying to achieve. It’s definitely an interesting time for supply chain management.

To me, this could be an incredibly exciting story about how we all came together to transform the world, as we know it, for the better. These are challenges that are holding back many developing countries and by resolving them, this could improve the quality of life of their citizens.

I’m deeply passionate about Africa. I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity to visit 12 or so different African countries and to really see what’s going on. Something that really upsets me is that the poorest countries in the world pay the highest prices for goods and services. And a lot of that is because the supply chain is so bad across Africa.

Improving African supply chains in terms of flow of goods AND improved digitalisation would be a pillar upon which we could create jobs and improve life for our people and our continent.

Nachi Mendelow is the Vice President of Business Development (Africa) at. WiseTech Global. He has an MBA and BA in Psychology. For the last 10 years, he has personally been involved in building and managing teams assisting companies to collaborate using technology in one of the most diverse regions of the globe. Mendelow is responsible for navigating some of the major institutional voids prevalent in Africa, ranging from electricity supply to internet connectivity, and has seen that collaboration is the key to overcoming such gaps.


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