NAIROBI, Kenya -- Bar codes. Electronic way bills. Vertically integrated partnerships. They help businesses turn big profits. Now companies like UPS and Wal-Mart are teaching these trade crafts to aid workers so they can deliver food and shelter to famine victims more quickly and cheaply, saving money and ultimately more lives.
When World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran visited hunger sites in Kenya and Somalia last month, she brought along Peter Bakker, the former chief executive of the transportation company TNT and a current U.N. ambassador against hunger. Bakker is helping rally businesses to provide support for those affected by the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa.
More than 12 million people need food aid in the Horn. WFP is responding with emergency rations in multiple locations.
"If you bring company thinking and company skills to a place like WFP, you can really make an impact," Bakker said while visiting a WFP distribution point in a drought-stricken region near Garissa, Kenya.
WFP is moving to a computerized system of delivery that includes bar coding aid products and using electronic way bills, Sheeran said. WFP would have had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to access such technology, she said, but the business world is sharing its secrets for free, to help save lives.
"It's another form of corporate responsibility that I think is really key," she said. "Can you help us be as good as you are -- in our world of savings lives and hunger -- in all these efficiencies and controls?"
Esther Ndichu, the humanitarian logistics manager for UPS, said her company's involvement in the Horn of Africa crisis began after Bakker made calls to WFP's corporate sponsors. UPS is part of a logistics emergency team along with TNT, Maersk and Agility, she said. On Aug. 16 UPS flew in a Boeing 767 with 50 metric tons of peanut butter supplment to Kenya at no cost. It flies in a second plane load on Saturday.
UPS helps WFP, UNICEF, and the Red Cross with logistics expertise, said Ronna Branch, a UPS spokeswoman. During this year's earthquake in Japan, UPS set up what it called a portable warehouse to store aid goods out in the field.
"We've been doing it forever. We've been moving everything from water and food and disaster relief stuff to pandas and whale sharks," Branch said. "But after the (2004 Asian) tsunami and then following Katrina, we were so involved in aid that the organization decided we wanted to take this on as a strategy of philanthropy," Branch said.
UPS donated its in-house logisticians to the aid group CARE USA to help improve the group's infrastructure, warehouse management and commodity tracking, Branch said. Rigo Giron, the associate vice president of strategic initiatives and supply chain management at CARE USA, said UPS's expertise has allowed CARE to expand its ability to deliver lifesaving aid.
"This learning has shaped CARE's supply chain strategies to move beyond our traditional logistical approach to one that leverages and optimizes resources within what I call a vertically integrated partnership. A partnership in which each participant, in this case, CARE and UPS, complements their individual capabilities to do more with less," Giron said.
After the Haiti earthquake, UPS helped the Salvation Army set up a system to track which families had been given what aid items to make sure everybody got something, Brand said.
"One thing we've noticed in the last two years is there's a willingness from (aid groups) to open up and have this private sector company come in and help them, even though they've been delivering aid the last 50 or 60 years, they're asking, 'Are we doing it as efficiently as we should?"' Ndichu said.
UPS spent about $4 million in cash grants and in-kind donations to aid groups last year, Ndichu said.
Wal-Mart's global security chief helped WFP create an efficient lock-down system of its food aid, but the security chief also told Sheeran that Wal-Mart wouldn't be doing business in a place like Somalia, where aid agencies know that a certain percentage of their aid will be stolen.
"We're asked to go to places where other supply chains will not go to, so what are the state of the art controls and efficiencies you can have?" Sheeran said.