I'm not sure what business professionals can learn from operations like those of the World Food Programme, but I'm convinced that we somehow serve the industry by telling that story and others like it. I hope you agree.
This month's Thought Leader interview features a conversation with Stephen Cahill, head of contracting for ocean services for the World Food Programme. The WFP, an arm of the United Nations, ships more than 4 million tons of food annually to feed more than 100 million people around the globe. Half of that food moves by ocean vessels.
We've written from time to time about the extraordinary efforts of carriers and shippers to move needed relief supplies and foodstuffs to disaster-stricken regions—places like Haiti or New Orleans.
What the World Food Programme does is much more akin to what distribution managers do every day. That is, to move its freight—food for the poor—where it's needed, when it's needed in the most efficient way possible, every day. The agency has adopted its own version of near-sourcing, buying food as close to where it's needed as possible. Its annual shipping budget of $250 million makes it a major international shipper. It has adopted modern visibility tools to help it manage its global supply chain.
But in many ways, its mission is unlike most of those faced by business logistics professionals. It is shipping food to some of the most remote parts of the world, areas notable for their poor infrastructure, political instability, and weak or non-existent security. It has to deal with piracy and political unrest. For example, the agency recently had to scramble to find alternative routes to Chad when its normal route through Libya became impassable after the rebellion broke out there.
And sadly, its work will not end any time soon. Cahill told DCV Senior Editor Mark Solomon that world food prices have spiked sharply since the last peak in 2008, which means WFP can only buy half the amount of wheat for the same money it could one year ago. At the same time, it has seen the number of underfed people worldwide push over the 1 billion mark. Even so, he speaks with some optimism about emerging technological tools that promise to make operations like his more effective and efficient.
Of course, none of us can predict what other events, man-made or natural, will disrupt that supply chain (or others) in the days, weeks, and years to come. Supply chain volatility is a real concern for every logistics manager. But missions like those of the WFP seem especially vulnerable and the consequences especially great.