Atlanta giants lend a hand to global aid efforts

UPS has spent decades honing the most efficient methods for shipping boxes around the world. Coca-Cola Co. has figured out how to get bottles of soft drinks to some of the most remote villages on the globe.

The Atlanta-based giants also use that expertise to help with humanitarian efforts, when quickly getting medication or relief supplies into countries with poor airports and roads can be exceedingly difficult.

Sandy Springs-based UPS’s foundation gives about $10 million annually in technical expertise funding and in-kind support for natural disaster response and recovery. The company works with the Red Cross in what’s called the “logistics action team” initiative.

With the Ebola outbreak, the earthquake in Nepal, the Syrian refugee crisis, Texas floods, California wildfires and a typhoon in the Northern Mariana Islands, 2015 was “a very busy year,” said Joe Ruiz, UPS Foundation’s director of humanitarian relief.

“When you think about disasters, when you think about post-crisis recovery, it’s really all about logistics and being able to get supplies to people,” Ruiz said.

While altruism is a driving motivation behind corporate humanitarian efforts, long-term business benefits also result. Chiefly, relief efforts help rebuild not only lives but also commerce.

“We have opportunities to improve communities and also grow our business,” Ruiz said.

In Coke’s work to increase access to medicines in Africa, “We’re not selling Cokes with this, but we’re building stronger communities,” spokeswoman April Jordin said. The company has employees and customers throughout Africa.

It’s “very important that we have strong businesses and opportunities in Africa to grow our business,” Jordin said. In short, “If a community is not doing well, it affects us in a lot of different ways.”

Emergency relief

In its work with the United Nations World Food Programme, UPS is part of a logistics emergency team. It works with competitors including shipping line Maersk to help get supplies into countries, warehouse them and get them to the right places.

“When these disasters occur, many times they happen in developing countries where the infrastructure’s not very developed,” Ruiz said. The team arose from the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which Ruiz said spawned talks on how logistics companies could help.

Since 2007, the logistics emergency team has given logistics support in 18 operations, and UPS has deployed about 20 people to do pro bono work.

The company finds employees with expertise in running warehouses, coordinating trucks, handling Customs, or even operating forklifts. Those workers get training in advance for work with the UPS Foundation, and their managers agree to release them for leave from their regular jobs when needed.

Those workers often help humanitarian organizations solve problems on the fly — such as figuring out how to get supplies into an area if an airport is shut down after a natural disaster.

Ruiz says UPS workers gain familiarity with such challenges from working over the Christmas holiday season, when volume doubles.

“Our people are very used to managing dynamic, complex environments,” he said. Going into disaster zones, “they bring organization out of chaos,” introducing their planning methods, as well as safety protocols for lifting things like 100 lb sacks of rice.

The challenge of vaccines

UPS and Coke both help with efforts to improve vaccination rates in Africa.

UPS has helped UNICEF develop systems to monitor shipments and supplies of vaccines and expedite Customs clearance for vaccines that need to be kept refrigerated.

“You don’t want vaccines sitting at a port in Mombasa, for instance, where temperatures go up to 90 degrees,” said Esther Ndichu, humanitarian supply chain director at UPS.

The shipping company is also donating an employee, Kevin Etter, for nearly two years to a global health partnership called Gavi, which is focused on increasing access to immunization.

Etter, a 32-year UPS employee who started out as a part-time truck loader and most recently was a global strategy manager in healthcare logistics, is now based in Geneva for Gavi through July 2016. UPS pays his salary.

Etter says some nations are unprepared for moving and storing vaccines. Some villages have no roads. Some warehouses may not store like product together or don’t have SKU codes to identify items, he said.

“You’re basically really at square one in a lot of these countries,” he said.

Etter has developed a training program for government officials from countries like Rwanda and Uganda to learn supply chain strategy for vaccines.

“Very often, the people that manage the supply chain are the doctors, the nurses, the midwives themselves,” Etter said. “Highly-skilled doctors and caregivers end up being stretched very thin and end up being able to give very little of their time to what they’ve trained for.”

Etter said professionalizing supply chains can help with problems like running out of vaccines due to poor inventory management.

Etter said the work helps introduce some people to the services UPS offers beyond shipping, such as freight forwarding, Customs brokerage, and its airline.

“This is an opportunity for us to get our name out there,” he said.

Coke, through a partnership called Project Last Mile with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also shares its expertise in distribution and marketing to get medicine and medical supplies to remote locales in Africa.

One specific area Coke can help with: refrigeration. Refrigerators used to keep medications at the right temperatures break down, and repair is complicated by various brands and models used.

At Coke, “We work with coolers all the time,” Jordin said. “We can come in and say, ‘You should only have “X” type of coolers, and we can show you how.’ ”

Hunger and logistics

UPS has also used its drivers’ handheld scanners as the jump-off for a project to improve the tracking of food distribution. After some natural disasters, food handouts can get chaotic and even violent.

With the scanner system, each family gets a smart card which is scanned to tell aid workers what to give them and how much of each item, based on family size. The old system used forms, cardboard punch cards and entries typed into a laptop, Ndichu said.

UPS also helped with efforts to replace gunny sacks of grains in Uganda with metal and plastic silos to protect contents from rain or rodents, and cargo bikes to help farmers get their harvest to more markets.

“There actually is enough food in the world to feed the entire population,” Ndichu said during a recent TED talk on the issue. “The problem isn’t the lack of food. Hunger is a logistics problem. It is a problem of getting the available food to the people that need it most.”

One example comes from the early stages of the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2012, the World Food Programme began an assessment of port facilities and how they are connected with roads, what suppliers operated there, what kind of warehousing space was available, and even the length of the airport’s runway to determine what kinds of planes could land there, Ruiz said.

“It was really instrumental to the World Food Progamme to help get supplies in immediately as refugees started coming across all borders in all locations,” he said, adding that UPS helps UN agencies with ensuring equitable distribution of supplies.

UPS also donates about $300,000 worth of shipping to Atlanta-based CARE annually, shipping goods such as nutrition biscuits, water treatment equipment, shelter kits and blankets, according to CARE.

“Logistics is the backbone of any response,” said CARE logistics coordinator Rachel Gordon-Roberts. Logistics experts also must figure out how to navigate around broken bridges or difficult roads, or store food in a warehouse with monitoring to make sure it won’t mold, rot, expire or be stolen, she said.