Q+A: Charles Brewer, Managing Director, DHL Express Sub-Saharan Africa, Weighs Into African Logistics, Emergency Response and the Impact of Technology on Logistics

In the past decades we’ve seen major disasters incapacitating cities, infrastructures, and lives around the world. When it comes to emergency response, a strong logistical network is one of the most critical assets for fast and efficient relief. However, infrastructure is often the first thing to fail in an emergency.

With climate change, global population growth and increasing population densities, the stakes are high for effective disaster relief. eft conducted an exclusive Q&A with Charles Brewer, Managing Director of DHL Express Sub-Saharan Africa to discuss the enormous logistics challenges of emergency response and the abilities of technology and public-private partnerships to address said challenges. 

  • What are your feelings towards the emergency response system currently operating in the Sub-Saharan African region? What challenges is the sector facing?

At the root of the challenges that we face in working in the Sub-Saharan African region is the fact that there is a lot of talking, and not a lot of doing.

Here at DHL we have a dedicated Aid & Relief Services Network, led by Chris Weeks (DHL's Humanitarian Director and Disaster Response Team leader) – focused on when an emergency occurs, how to make the most of our logistical footprint, network, infrastructure, planes, trucks & knowledge to get the country hit by the emergency up and running as quickly as possible.

e.g. Nepal earthquake, we had teams of trained professionals staying at the airport to facilitate the moving of supplies in and out the country.

Working with the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO), we have identified that when emergencies occur the first thing to collapse are logistical infrastructures:

e.g. With the 2015 floods in Northern Chile, we saw a huge number of people rushing to send blankets, food, medicine and equipment. But most of it never found its way to the people that were needing these items – as they were stolen, lost or sold on the black market within seconds (the last-mile being the key issue in emergency response).

So what DHL does to avoid encountering these issues is to work with the local governments at the airports & the ports to keep the infrastructures moving – so that the supplies get through to the right people in the quickest possible time – our way of engaging in Public-Private Partnerships within the emergency response field of logistical networks management.

We have a very specific Disaster Response Team set-up globally, and should there be a disaster in Africa, we would engage the DRT to come in and operate and work with small logistics companies, big logistics companies, our competitors, whoever it may be to make sure that we can get the key logistics infrastructure working. For example in Sudan we looked at that as a potential opportunity where we could work with governments to help keep food moving through. 

It has to be something that the government wants, and that the UN and WHO say yes to, and finally that we (the private sector) accept to implement.

  • What role has technology played in helping you tackle these challenges, specifically in terms of the last-mile of the supply chain? What role does the Industrial Internet of Things have on the way you deliver?

The IoT is still fairly new to us, and we recently partnered with Cisco to produce a paper on how the IoT is set to impact logistics, cities, as so on and so forth - but it is still incredibly embryonic.

So the honest truth is virtually zero I would say, although we have started using things like Google Glasses in warehouses to pick products & pick shipments – so it’s been some use, but it’s still hugely embryonic.

Technology in general: 32 years ago, when I started, we didn’t have technology that captured data. Today we have tools smaller than a smartphone that capture the checkpoint of a shipment and is available globally in ten minutes. So, you know, it’s changed massively!

Everybody wants to get consumers in any form, everybody wants to know where their packages, supplies, logistical requirements are at in any given time, so we have a continual need to provide data quicker and faster, and more accurately around the world. 

On any particular shipment we have 15 checkpoints which it goes through – and those checkpoints are available to the customer 99% of the time inside of 10 minutes anywhere in the world – but of course if we speak about rural Ethiopia for example, where most people don’t even have access to mobile phone, that’s when it gets challenging.

So from the smallest to the biggest I suppose, In terms of how we use technology, we experienced a huge shift.

The Cargo Drones Project, created by Afrotech, a technology innovation project set-up by l’Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne, is set to provide air cargo drones to transport medical supplies via the sky through spin-off companies Red Line and Blu Express.

What we will be using tomorrow is completely different to what we are using today – so to give you an example, here at DHL we cover all of Africa, but some parts of the continent are significantly easier to reach than others – you’ve got swaths of territory that are very very difficult to access, so we are looking at drones to deliver medicine in the Serengeti (which spans approximately 30,000 km2, from Northern Tanzania to South-Western Kenya). It’s coming, and as you appreciate in the last 30 years in terms of evolution, went at a speed that has shown how unpredictable it is and it will be for us.

What we will see in the next 5 years in Africa as mediums in terms of delivering of emergency supplies to non-emergency supplies is going to surprise us all!

I am personally not 100% convinced of drones, and I’ll tell you why, where are you now, in London? So imagine tomorrow you look out your window and you see 30 drones flying. How long will it take for thief to understand and recognize that that drone is carrying a phone? I mean it’s going to get knocked down from the sky in seconds!

So that’s why DHL is looking at areas such as the Serengeti, so rural, semi-rural areas where drones delivery could actually make a positive impact without encountering damaging factors.

And then the other side of the coin: in my opinion, logistics is going to go backwards in some respect. If you take African cities like Nairobi (Kenya), Dakar (Senegal), Lagos (Nigeria), etc. – there the traffic is so bad, and the infrastructure is so bad, that we are looking at alternative methods, which to some extent applies to most cities in the rest of the world such as Amsterdam or London – where we will want to go back to bicycles, or electric bicycles! - Which make even more sense than drones or other forms of technologically advanced vehicles.

I think we’ll use this continuum of multimodal methods to get products to end-customers, whether in the emergency response field or not.

I’ll also give you a more realistic example of what we actually did do: if you take Lagos, if you need to go from the airport down to the island, it could take you anytime between 1 and 3 hours – and if it’s raining it could be longer. And DHL works in seconds (not even in minutes), so we had to find ways to deliver much quicker than that. What Nigeria does have in bucket fulls is water.

So we’ve taken all of our deliveries, taken them off the road, and put them on a boat. It now takes us 13 minutes versus the 3 hours it used to take us.

It’s a case of not one size fits all in Africa, and you got to be able to adapt by knowing each area individually and deeply. One size doesn’t fit all globally, and it basically doesn’t fit any in Africa! We also really want to put electrical vehicles on the roads in Africa, but issues such as charging point and electricity shortage have limited our actions so far.

Look at each market, country, and even individual sale. In some cases that’s going to be a really vast expanded range of possibilities.

You have to challenge yourself and your Teams constantly, and ask: “What would be the best method here to ensure we get shipped to consumers at the quickest?”

More about DHL Express Sub-Saharan Africa

DHL is the only multi-national company to be present and operate in every Sub-Saharan African country, similarly they are the only express operator to fly their own dedicated fleet of aircraft (20 at present), they are investing in every single country, including a multi-million facility investment program that will see virtually every DHL facility (more than 400) replaced with a world-class unit, they have just completed re-fleeting their entire ground vehicle network and are midway through an IT overhaul including state of the art security system.

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