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The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way private companies approach logistics, transportation and supply chain processes. The public sector is also having to pivot to prioritise medicines and healthcare products that support the fight against COVID-19. This is happening globally, as well across the African continent.

At the Africa Resource Centre (ARC) we have been speaking to the members of our private sector advisory board and private sector implementing partners to understand these changes and how they can be applied by governments in Africa.

Steve Johnson is a director at the Frontline Research Group, a market research company supporting the private sector and the public sector with information solutions in the form of GIS data collection analysis, logistics and route-to-market and strategic route optimisation services Frontline offers various fit for purpose market information solutions for sustainable development across Africa.

Context affects supply chain management

Johnson says that one of the major challenges for global supply chains is that each country is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and response in its own way. This means that supply chains need to be managed dynamically, depending on the context. For example, in Rwanda, beverage bottlers have completely shut down. “They are going to have to supply the demand when COVID-19 ends and they reopen,” he says. “To do this, they are going to have to change the way they usually deliver their beverages. They will not be able to service these deliveries in the same way they did before the lockdown. Supply chains in Africa are going to be forever changed. The key to adapting to these changes is having access to data and being able to turn that data into useful actionable information.”

Similarly, governments are grappling with mounting pressures on managing their healthcare supply chains rather than on non-essential goods. The public sector supply chains need to ensure that other medicines and health products are delivered at the point of need in a timely manner and in the right quantities. This is on top of the COVID response essentials that continue to impose pressure on these health systems.

“There is pressure on public sector supply chains to deliver medicines and health products that relate to COVID-19, but at the same time they need to stay focused on delivering medication for chronic diseases like HIV and TB, and treatment for malaria as well,” says Johnson.

Better use of data is critical

Johnson believes that the better use of available data is a critical step in problem solving, that supply chain professionals should be doing right now. “After COVID-19 everything is going to change in the way people think, and how they do business. We need to get ahead of it now. We need to understand what data we have immediately and what governments and donors still need to get to inform their responses to COVID-19, what they can do, and what the alternatives are that they have.”

Data can also help governments to shape their responses to the global pandemic. For example, using population census data, governments and expert partners can extrapolate and disaggregate this data to support their policy responses to serve the population’s health needs. “Using metrics like death rates, birth rates and growth rates and patterns over time, we are able to plot and map them and aggregate them down to certain levels. With this data, maps, and using route-to-market supply chain and logistics experts as well as data points and software, we are then able to begin advising on sustainable route-to-market and logistics,” says Johnson.

He cites Frontline’s expertise as an example. “We have a large network of people on the ground and we have access to quality and up to date data. We also know what to do with that data. A lot of medicine delivery is reliant on the courier companies, donors and the government. The data is available, but sometimes the data is incorrectly filtered or set up and it mostly requires a lot of work to make sense of it,” he explains. “Governments need to have a data centre in-house, where all that data comes from and is looked after and managed continuously as a priority. Data management and quality control need to come from one single source.”

He adds that digitalisation of data collection and management is also critical. “The ability to conduct research digitally [survey apps] in an effective and statistical way is paramount, whether we’re in lockdown or not,” he says.

Now is the time to innovate

He believes that COVID-19 is an opportunity for both the private and public sector to fast track innovation in their approach to data and supply chain management. Within Frontline, he is encouraging his team to innovate on several fronts during this time.

“We are all working from home so we have innovation sessions weekly. We talk about what we are doing to innovate. We’ve also created an innovation competition, and I’ve converted COVID-19 into the words, “creation of victorious innovative designs”. We are basically asking our employees to team up and come up with better ways to automate, create efficiencies and to develop new products and insights based on what we currently do. And then they have to be measured, and they have to have a return on investment and if they do, there are prizes to be awarded,” he says. “I think the private sector can help the public sector the most by being part of an incubator, or brains trust, that can strategically help governments to think out the box, and then turn these challenges into opportunities.”