Distribution in Africa – what you need to know

When Africa supply chain management is the topic of discussion, frequently used words include inefficiency, bottlenecks, bureaucracy, corruption, poor infrastructure, and the occasional “chaos.” It is easy to fall into the trap of grouping all African countries into the same categories. However, there are significant similarities and differences from country to country and region to region. For any executive, it is crucial to understand how these similarities and differences will impact their business.

For companies, moving goods in and around African markets, the high cost and long lead times are two of the biggest challenges for almost every industry. A World Bank study found that cargo spends on average 20 days in African ports, compared to three to four days for most other ports.

For Africa’s numerous landlocked countries (the highest of any continent), the lead times are significantly longer. For example, landlocked countries such as Burundi and Uganda are negatively impacted, as they depend on transit solutions from neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania.

A report by Trademark East Africa noted that it takes up to 71 days to import goods to Burundi from any of the other East African countries. It is estimated that the cost of transporting goods in Africa is 60%-70% higher than in the US and Europe.

For companies, it is crucial to work with third-party logistics (3PLs) that understand the regulations and have the necessary relationships with customs and port officials. Furthermore, the legal and regulatory environment differs from port to port. However, managers should guard against taking a backseat when dealing with port and customs officials. Managers must understand the lead times, processes, and have the necessary contracts, controls, and systems in place to ensure 3PLs are compliant.

Counterfeit and parallel imports remain a significant concern. African markets remain a dumping ground for many importers and exporters that buy expired (or close to expired) products from European retailers. Large trading groups operating out of the Middle East (e.g. Dubai) usually are a significant source for importers. Close cooperation with authorities is increasingly bearing fruit. Anti-counterfeit initiatives such as scratch codes and text message service (e.g. pharmaceuticals) are also necessary measures to safeguard against counterfeits.

Roads, transport and warehousing 

The transport systems of African countries vary significantly across region and countries. For example, Chad has only 60km of paved roads per million people, whereas countries like Algeria and Namibia boast over 2,000km of paved roads for a similar population.

In many countries, cities and villages might find themselves cut off during the rainy season. Organisations need to have a good understanding of the road network, all-season roads, and trade corridors. In Africa, distribution distances tend to be significant, and distribution centres (DCs) limited.

Furthermore, overnight routes and driver per diems can increase costs and reduce truck utilisation. Companies need to evaluate the need for more DCs and the role that cross-docking can play in streamlining distribution processes and reducing costs.

Finding a professional warehouse operator can be a daunting experience. Many warehouses for rent are poorly designed, with poor yard management, ventilation, and equipment. Often critical components such as the receiving, staging, and dispatching areas are overlooked or are provided with inadequate space.

Many 3PLs also lack the required capability development and incentive schemes to motivate their workforce. For management, it is better to manage expectations and closely work with local operators. Local operators allow organisations to tap into a lower cost structure and can also provide greater flexibility.

Organisations also need to play an active part in capability development and setting incentives and rewarding partners. However, there is an increase in the number of professional 3PLs operating in the African continent. Many South African and European operators are setting up shop or making strategic acquisitions in the continent.

Before purchasing a large fleet, management needs to understand how markets operate and whether it makes sense to manage a fleet or to outsource, rent, or lease. Many large established multinationals in Africa outsource their transport requirements, often to small independent transporters that cover smaller towns and regions. Road conditions will also affect transport costs. Transport costs escalate the rougher the road, as carriers need to factor in truck maintenance.

For smaller organisations, there are real opportunities in collaborating with companies to consolidate shipments. I often run into companies that effectively tap into the African bus system to courier goods around the country, often with great success and at a much lower cost.

When operating a fleet, it is important to assess the make of vehicles that have readily available spare parts and maintenance in the country. An organisation in South Sudan discovered that their particular make of vehicles could not be serviced in the country. The vehicles had to be driven back to Kenya for service as there were no spare parts available in the country. In extreme cases such as South Sudan, finding qualified technicians can also be a significant obstacle.

Skills and technology

For many organisations, creating visibility in their African supply chains can be a major challenge. Integrating ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and other tech systems provide challenges. Increasing visibility can take time and might include a combination of technology and manual processes. Manual labour remains relatively cheap, and for many organisations manual processes can save money. In many operations hardcopy paper flow will continue and will likely coexist with information technology systems.

African businesses are also increasingly evaluating mid-tech solutions and identifying the appropriate technology (such as mobile phones) for their operations. For many organisations, mobile sales automisation and m-banking provide real opportunities.

African supply chains provide many challenges for organisations and integrating supply chains will take time. Often companies need to play an active role in capability development, as supply chain skills are often in short supply.

Managers need to rethink technology solutions, as sometimes old school approaches and a local mindset can reduce the complexity and increase profitability in the early development stages. Organisations should take time to understand individual markets and stay clear from the oversimplification or generalisation so readily on offer.

First published in How We Made It In Africa

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