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More supply chain professionals are needed in Africa, both in the public and private sector. This need is particularly acute in the public health system where governments must be able to deliver the medicines and health commodities to the people who need them, when and where they are needed, affordably. A solid healthcare supply system is an essential building block for responding to existing and future health challenges. Building this capability is a complex issue, but Africa Resource Centre (ARC) believes that one way to do this is through strengthening academic research into supply chain.

Across Africa, fewer institutions offer supply chain qualifications within their curricula.[1] For instance, less than 30% of academic institutions in the East African Community region offer supply chain degrees.[2] As a result, most people managing supply chain activities in public health on the continent tend to come from a pharmacy background and have pharmaceutical qualifications predominantly focused on materials handling and storage conditions for drugs. However, in many instances, professionals trained in industrial engineering, system design and business faculties would be better suited to handle the procurement planning, storage, distribution, a reverse logistics needed to run a health supply chain.

To address this gap in capability in the health supply chain, ARC is funding academic research into supply chain. The goal is to inspire people (both those starting out in an academic career and existing academics) to make supply chain a focus area for their research. ARC believes this research will increase the number of faculties teaching supply chain, whether in undergraduate or post-graduate courses, at universities. As more people earn degrees in supply chain, they will be able to bring their skills to the public health system and make it easier for the public health system to access these kinds of skills.

When more people choose to research and study supply chain it will result in strengthening the health system by:

Finding the most cost effective way to treat patients

To achieve universal health coverage, governments need to find sustainable models. One of the challenges is the cost of medicines, which is estimated to be between 40 and 70% of the cost of providing universal health coverage to a population.

Figuring out the most cost effective way of treating patients is becoming more and more critical. This could involve developing new channels to reach patients, rather than having patients collect their medicines from hospitals and clinics (for example, ARC is working with the Ministry of Health in Uganda to develop a new multi-channel medicine distribution model). Or it could mean improving supply chain visibility to help optimise processes and avoid unnecessary costs (for example, ARC’s work with the Ministry of Health in Nigeria).

There are many new ways to reach patients that need to be investigated from a cost effectiveness point of view. For example, it might cost a little bit more to deliver drugs to a clinic at ward or village level, but this might be more effective in terms of ensuring adherence to chronic regimens like antiretroviral therapy, which will reduce long-term costs to health systems. Finding the answers to questions surrounding healthcare costs will help decision–makers to develop informed policies that will assist in delivering universal health coverage. Research is a vital step in seeking to answer these questions.

Increasing supply chain talent

There is a lot of competition for supply chain skills in Africa. Skilled supply chain professionals are in high demand not only from the health sector but, also agriculture, mining and gas. To address this, the continent needs more people graduating from university with the skills to join the supply chain pool. Universities have the ability to stimulate interest in studying supply chain, along with providing the skills needed to produce future supply chain talent. ARC’s initiative aims to contribute to this endeavour.

Informing the development of locally relevant policies

Policy is an important component of health systems strengthening. Development of effective policy is about understanding the current situation, and planning for the future to improve the efficiency with which governments can deliver affordable services to patients.

Academic institutions tend to understand challenges in the countries where they are located better than those in other countries, and may therefore identify and articulate solutions more quickly. This leads to health system strengthening by providing governments with strong locally relevant data, which can be used to make decisions about policies. Rigorous research work provides this data.

Research is an integral part of economic development. Thus, engaging academics and researchers today will help to build the health supply chain of the future in Africa – an essential part of the quest for long-term health system strengthening and improved livelihoods in Africa.

Find out more about ARC’s call for research in 2020.

[1] Developing Supply Chain Talent and Innovation in Africa Report. Global Logistics Cluster Meeting, 2018

[2] Africa Resource Centre Estimates, 2019.