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Relief logistics: making it happen in eastern Africa


Between the donor responding to an appeal, and the beneficiary receiving help, lies a complex web of logistical headaches. In eastern/central Africa, John Wert is the man who gets things going, as Suzanne Charest reports from Kenya.


  John Wert does some route planning in Nairobi

In an office in Nairobi, John Wert stands in front of a map of Africa, so massive that it is actually three maps joined together under plexi-glass. As head of the ICRC's largest logistics field   operation in the world, John is responsible for managing the procurement, warehousing and transportation of relief goods, medical supplies and water sanitation equipment destined for 12 countries in the eastern part of the continent. 

The operation covers countries with enormous and diverse needs – places such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, each country a byword for human suffering.

This would seem like a daunting task to many, but John thrives on the challenges, along with the precision and daily problem-solving needed to carry out the job. Whether it’s organizing massive food convoys to Ethiopia, delivering medical equipment and medicine to the ICRC's largest field hospital at Lokichokio, in northern Kenya, or sending food supplies to tens of thousands of prisoners visited by the Red Cross in Rwanda, John is prepared. 

His trek to Africa began in 198 8 when he was taken on as a purchasing manager with the Canadian Red Cross national office in Ottawa, his home town.

From 1991 to 1994 he had his first taste of international work with the Solidarity Assistance Project, funded by the Canadian government. The project provided relief goods to Russia as well as countries affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union. John coordinated the purchase of materials as well as the logistics for relief flights dispatched from Canada.

 Hard to return to a desk job  

After completing the basic training course for international delegates in 1993, he became a logistician with the ICRC in war-torn Chechnya. “After my initial overseas experience it was difficult to go back to my desk job in Ottawa,” says John. “I was really hooked on international work and there was no turning back.”

Next came ICRC missions to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo and a desk job at HQ in Geneva, that took him on short missions to the field.

Where the security situation allows, his wife and daughter travel with him. He remembers his family having to pack their suitcases and leave hours before the NATO bombing began in Belgrade in 1999.

John arrived in Kenya to manage the logistics operation in July 2002. His team includes more than 200 Kenyans as well as ten expatriate staff from Switzerland, Finland, Malaysia, France, Britain and Italy. “Working with such a broad range of cultures is stimulating,” adds John. “Everyone brings a different approach to a problem and a wide array of experiences with humanitarian programmes.”

The Red Cross warehouse complex is piled high with cooking oil, split peas, maize, blankets, tarpaulins, water purification equipment, agricultural tools   and other relief goods. Even with his depth of experience, John has found new challenges in Kenya.

“The infrastructure   can sometimes slow things down,” he remarks. “The distances are also enormous, with truck convoys sometimes taking up to a month prior to their return.”

“Another major difference is that virtually all of the loading is done manually, as we only have one large forklift. The food is also in bulk form rather than pre-packaged parcels more common in other countries where I have worked.”

 Supporting the local economy  

Goods are distributed by land, sea and air. John is passionate about the need to support the local economy in the region. “We try as much as possible to purchase goods here in Kenya and neighbouring countries, as it not only saves on shipping costs, but also provides additional support to the local economy. We are beginning to use the railway to transport goods from the port of Mombasa, which is another way to contribute to the economy here in Kenya.”

One of his most vivid memories was launching a massive food distribution to drought-stricken Ethiopia in late 2002. In a matter of weeks, convoys left the Kenya warehouse carrying 2,000 metric tonnes (MT) of maize, as well as huge quantities of split peas and cooking oil, destined for the Afar region of Ethiopia.

In early December, the programme was set to deliver 50,000 MT of food, seeds and non-food items such as food, blankets and soap. “At a time of year when many businesses are closed because of Christmas and with elections just a few days away, our team accomplished the extraordinary task of organizing the tendering, procurement, loading, customs and transport of this shipment,” says John. The team managed to co mplete the paperwork and fulfill requirements needed to arrange for shipments to go by road from Nairobi and by sea from Mombasa to Djibouti, at the entrance to the Red Sea.

“Every operation is both different and extraordinary in its own way,” adds John. “The challenges can really vary, from a washed-out bridge that prevents access to a region to the details   of customs paperwork and dealing with many different suppliers.”

Although he may not work directly with the people who benefit from Red Cross programmes, he still feels great motivation from working in the humanitarian field. “The impact of my work may be indirect, but I feel lucky to help make a small difference to people’s lives.”