Humanitarian operations - "Better, Faster and Sustainable"
We have witnessed the importance of humanitarian logistics in recent disasters ranging from pandemics to wars. The logistics in this industry have improved, making the supply chain smooth and efficient.
One of the fundamental missions of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), airports, airlines, the logistics and aviation sector and humanitarian relief organisations is to deliver the appropriate goods at the right time to the right locations, in a bid to save lives and assisting people in need.
Natural disasters are becoming more prevalent, placing pressure on governments and humanitarian relief groups to develop adequate tools to ensure effective disaster response.
While logistics in the humanitarian sector has advanced dramatically, the world has also changed radically in terms of technology, money, long-term disasters, pandemics, war, and climate change. So can humanitarian logistics that serve such an essential need be made sustainable?
This report looks into the evolution of humanitarian logistics, the effective and efficient use of data, and whether or not humanitarian logistics can be made sustainable.
Evolution of the supply chain
Many changes have occurred in the handling of humanitarian logistics, the supply chain process, and how to respond to a humanitarian crisis with immediate impact. Industry leaders also concur that logistics is handled differently today than it was ten years ago.
"There is no doubt that the humanitarian supply chain and logistics have evolved a lot in the last decade, just like any other industry. However, lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic are imposing new changes from which we can't escape. The entire supply chain needs to be revisited; the production of humanitarian aid brought close to potentially affected areas, being better prepared for the next large-scale emergency, including pandemics; reducing the transport inconvenience, using of the humanitarian hubs worldwide in a more efficient manner, and connecting them for better coordination, cooperation, and co-sharing information," said Giuseppe Saba, CEO, International Humanitarian City (IHC).
"There is no doubt that the humanitarian supply chain and logistics have evolved a lot in the last decade, just like any other industry. However, lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic are imposing new changes from which we can't escape."
Giuseppe Saba, CEO, International Humanitarian City
Things have altered in the humanitarian logistics industry as a result of the two years of Covid. It will be fascinating to see how this industry will do in the next five years based on the lessons learned from the pandemic and geopolitical situations.
"The sector has become much more saturated with demand for emergency response by air. Civil wars and natural disasters such as droughts, earthquakes and tsunamis, paired with global pandemics such as Ebola, Cholera and, most recently, Covid-19, have brought humanitarian logistics to a whole new realm. During the past two years, we faced unprecedented levels of air movements in humanitarian logistics. The next 5 years are very unpredictable due to economic instability in a post-Covid world, exacerbated by the current war in Ukraine amongst other factors," said Olga Kovalova, Key Account Manager – Cargo, Chapman Freeborn.
"There has been some level of improvement in the last 10 years in the humanitarian logistics sector which has resulted in improved response time, crisis management and efficient communication. We believe that the sector will evolve over the next 5 years with an increase in the use of technology and digitalisation," said Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO, Astral Aviation.
The importance of being prepared
In a time of disaster, the most necessary things are human rescue and the basic needs of people like food, water and medicines. The ability of the rescue team or government to deliver food and medicines and services to the affected locations relies heavily on the availability of a transportation network.
Being attentive during an emergency is the most important aspect of humanitarian logistics. The primary goal of a disaster relief operation is to transport the supplies in a timely manner. How do airlines and organisations stay prepared for the situation?
"Speed is of the essence; however pre-flight planning is essential given the challenges on the ground with handling, safety and security. We plan all our flights meticulously and involve the client at the destination to ensure that they have all the information on the shipment which will enable a quick turn-around. We always have a flight manager on board to coordinate with the charterer in the event of any problems, which reduces the pressure on the crew," said Gadhia.
Kovalova of Chapman Freeborn believes that the most crucial aspect in humanitarian logistics is having a dedicated and experienced team ready to react spontaneously to unpredictable world events. "The nature of humanitarian logistics is such that things cannot be planned in advance, so the team must be psychologically and physically ready for unpredictability and long working hours during response periods, which can often last for weeks."
"Once the area in need is determined, the team needs to identify potential suppliers and operators capable of serving the affected area. This involves ascertaining the aircraft type, size, landing requirements, country of registration and proximity to the affected location. The most unpredictable element is the timing of obtaining all necessary overflight permits. Often we rely on diplomatic channels initiated by our clients, and that's where we don't get much control. Bureaucracy is the biggest challenge in emergency situations, whether that be regarding overflight permits, cargo clearances, or other necessary paperwork," she says.
Planning, preparation, transit, procurement, storage, monitoring, and tracking are all part of the logistics process. And reaching certain remote places and long shipment durations make the logistics of completing such assignments challenging.
"Last-mile delivery is a challenge in the "commercial" supply chain, particularly the humanitarian aid movement. It becomes much more relevant when there is a need to move vaccines or other items requiring cold chain. Medium and small-size logistics companies become crucial. For such reason, preparedness is key, as well as coordination with partners, including local societies," Kovalova added.
Effective and efficient use of technology & data
How can we ensure that technology is used efficiently and effectively? In many circumstances, data remains the most challenging task. Modern data analytics can provide important insights, thus effective data collection and exchange are required. Similarly, AI can assist in forecasting future needs, which is especially important in the face of climate change.
"The nature of humanitarian logistics is that things cannot be planned in advance, so the team must be psychologically and physically ready for unpredictability and long working hours during response periods, which can often last for weeks."
Olga Kovalova, Key Account Manager – Cargo, Chapman Freeborn
"Data is not being used effectively as there is a lack of innovation along the logistical supply chain. The use of technology for assessing stock levels and flows in the warehouse at the destination and at the origin will result in efficiency. The use of temperature control devices will be useful in vaccine movements. The humanitarian sector needs to cooperate with companies in the innovation sector," Gadhia said.
Logistics is at a crossroads now, just as it was 20 years ago. It must evolve into a driver of critical organizational strategy decisions such as investments in data analytics, technology, sharing platforms, and collaborations.
"There are a lot of technologies around now. If we speak about data analysis, proper preparation of cargo details and statistical tools to draw lessons from past experience, this would be down to technology specialists to determine user-friendly and efficient systems. However, when it comes to humanitarian emergency response, the most crucial tools are high-speed internet and comprehensive phone coverage to ensure information can be communicated swiftly and clearly," said Kovalova.
IHC has provided the international community with a solution for better preparedness and response called 'The Humanitarian Logistics Databank'. It is a platform for sharing data on humanitarian aid inventories and movements in order to improve emergency preparedness and response.
Saba said, "Instead of collecting information from the various WMS (Warehouse management systems) adopted by our humanitarian community, we decided to adopt an automated tracking of aid movements based on customs data from ports, airports, and other entry points. It provides the global humanitarian community with information on the exact positioning of critical relief items such as food, medicine, and shelter, making them accessible to all cooperating parties. This platform improves collaboration and helps avoid bottlenecks in ports and airports."
The Databank now covers the humanitarian hubs of Dubai, Panama, and Brindisi – Italy, and we intend to replicate it in other humanitarian hubs, hosting stocks prepositioned for an international response," he said.
Benefits of drone-based logistics
Drones can complement humanitarian aid responses by providing an additional, complementary resource for humanitarian aid organisations to adopt. They may be pre-positioned in disaster-prone areas, as they do not require considerable infrastructure (like runways), and can work around regions with limited infrastructure.
"The versatility of drone platforms makes them ideal for a wide range of applications. The drone that is deployed to deliver medical supplies can also be deployed in a crisis response scenario for last-mile delivery of emergency supplies, or even temporary restoration of network connectivity." said Julie Makena, drone engineer, Astral Aerial Solutions.
"Data is not being used effectively as there is a lack of innovation along the logistical supply chain. The use of technology for assessing stock levels and flows in the warehouse at the destination and at origin will result in efficiency."
Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO, Astral Aviation
But are drones capable of solving the gaps in humanitarian logistics that now exist? Makena thinks that based on individual delivery requirements and availability, airplanes, drones, roads, and rail each have their own unique application.
"For example, drones are uniquely positioned to be a go-to logistics solution in Africa owing to regions with poorly developed infrastructure such as road and rail. Additionally, they will provide last-mile delivery in locations that are inaccessible. My personal view is that once drones are proven to fill the existing gaps in logistics, there will be more widespread adoption and more use cases that will arise," Makena added.
In fact, Astral Aerial Solutions obtained regulatory approval for beyond-visual line-of-sight cargo delivery flights, where they demonstrated supply chain operations. In May this year, Astral Aerial Solutions, Swoop Aero, and Skyports carried out Kenya's first Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone deliveries. The collaboration will offer the health sector last-mile drone operations to deliver critical medical cargo, such as samples, vaccines, and medicines, to healthcare institutions in hard-to-reach areas of Kenya. The firm intends to grow this through partnerships with humanitarian and healthcare organisations.
A sustainable approach
Creating healthcare facilities and other basic infrastructure is becoming an increasingly important aspect of humanitarian operations. Food aid is a lifeline for people suffering from hunger and starvation and also during humanitarian crisis. One important factor that is often overlooked is the importance of food packaging in ensuring that food is safe and nutritious when it reaches those in need.
Food wastage is frequently caused by poor packaging since food can deteriorate and become unsafe for consumption. How can we make packaging more sustainable within the current supply chain networks operating in this area?
"This has been a topic of discussion and study for a while now. We should reduce waste, not only for food packaging but also for all relief materials like shelter and tents, etc. We are adopting materials and designs to recycle and reuse by shifting the packaging from a burden into something which can be value-addition. Some of the companies based in IHC have already provided similar solutions in cooperation with the humanitarian and development community," Saba added.
In December 2021, IHC and the DIHAD Sustainable Humanitarian Foundation signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which focuses on the creation and development of bringing public and private organizations together to collaborate and build long-term humanitarian partnerships, with the goal of strengthening cooperation between the two institutes and planning for sustainable and innovative projects.
Having more stops during a drone operation can aid in intelligently harnessing this technology. "There is definitely a drive towards sustainability of drone operations in the delivery space. Higher volumes of cargo that allow for more flights, reverse logistics and spreading the number of clients that utilize the route can make drone deliveries more sustainable," said Julie Makena, drone engineer, Astral Aerial.
Over the years, advances in humanitarian logistics, drone logistics enabling speedier supplies, and data utilization have enabled better and faster responses.
Despite this, there are still a few challenges like unstable costs involved that airlines face while delivering essentials to other countries or continents using data effectively, considering the sustainability of the food packaging and essentials that are being delivered to the needy and ensuring that they are in good and hygienic condition.
"The versatility of drone platforms makes them ideal for a wide range of applications. The drone that is deployed to deliver medical supplies can also be deployed in a crisis response scenario for last-mile delivery of emergency supplies."
Julie Makena, drone engineer, Astral Aerial Solutions
However, Kovalova says that she does not see an immediate switch from the dependence of air transport solutions during a humanitarian crisis yet. "In our job, we rely on air transport solutions as it is often the quickest way to help people in need. Clients seek solutions with Chapman Freeborn only in emergency situations when other solutions are not an option. The humanitarian market relying on air transport less, would require local hubs to be stocked with supplies over time and ready for emergencies, especially in areas from where cargo can be distributed to those in need by other means of transport. However, this is easier said than done: the nature of the humanitarian sector is its unpredictability coupled with a lack of infrastructure in affected areas. Unless there are other infrastructures in place, such as railways or electric vehicles, it will not be an easy switch from air transport," said Kovalova.