From pirate ships to iPhones: What it takes to ‘get things’ into complex environments

Devex caught up with several logistics experts navigating this challenging procurement context to find out what it takes to get goods into South Sudan. Photo by: Piro* / CC BY-NC-ND

The craziest thing Wilhelm Du Toit has ever secured for a client was a pirate ship.

“People asked to be evacuated, and that was the solution,” said Du Toit, South Sudan’s country manager for Global Mission Support Services, a company focused on helping people and organizations with logistics worldwide.

Stringent about not breaking his client’s nondisclosure agreement, Du Toit doesn’t divulge too much. In the little he reveals, it was clear that this was an emergency situation, all regular shipping was grounded and surprisingly, he quipped, it wasn’t that hard to find.

“It was an innovative solution to a very dire situation,” Du Toit said. Two thousand people were evacuated that day as the pirate ship made several trips shuttling civilians to safety.

6 ways one procurement company navigates the complexities of South Sudan

Global Mission Support Services is a one-stop-shop for logistical needs in South Sudan and around the world. Devex spoke with country director Wilhelm Du Toit and owner Roy Shaposhnik about what it takes to bypass the red tape in order to bring items such as armored cars or communication equipment into one of the most dynamic and complex environments in the world.

Although the ship was out of the company’s usual wheelhouse, Du Toit says it is well in line with what they do: Enabling people in austere environments.

As the world’s youngest nation enters its fifth year of conflict, with more than 4 million South Sudanese displaced from their homes, over 50,000 people killed, and 1.25 million on the brink of starvation, the already complex situation is compounded by logistical challenges.  

Humanitarians and private organizations say complications include risks up and down the supply chain, such as rigorous customs clearances, volatile security on the major import routes, and an overall harsh operating environment — one that often lends itself to the overpricing of regular transport and cargo services.

Though Du Toit is uncertain of a concrete number, industry experts estimate that roughly 6.4 million tons — $426 million — of imports such as sugar, medicine and logistical supplies make their way into South Sudan by road each year, he said.

Aid agency Oxfam has been operating in South Sudan — formerly Sudan — since 1983, working on humanitarian response, advocacy and women’s rights issues. Due to their extensive work with water and hygiene sanitation, some of the organization’s major procurements regularly include materials for drilling wells, solar pumps and panels, and hygiene kits with soap, sanitary pads and buckets and water purifiers among other things. Nelson Warambo, Oxfam’s country logistics coordinator, says there are often impediments to bringing supplies in.

“Custom clearance can take longer than expected,” said Warambo, adding that they have to practice patience, as “there’s nothing much else” they can do.

Although many agencies, including Oxfam, have their own internal logistic teams, Du Toit says they don’t always have the regional or international access, or the right connections. GMSS is one of a handful of private organizations operating in South Sudan that is focused on making it easier for NGOs, businesses and people who want to make things happen quickly. The company works with “anyone who needs anything brought in.”

From foreign governments to departments of state and the United Nations to individuals and NGOs, they’ve shipped in goods from armored cars to iPhones to machines that print labels.

GMSS only turns down about 10 percent of requests, and they attribute their procurement success to the company’s tailored approach, their ability to build trusted local relationships and the time they invest with each client.

“We’ll see every single government department and write letters and give supporting documents,” Du Toit explained. GMSS’ eight permanent staff on the ground assume much of the responsibility and the risk for what it is that they’re trying to get, he added

Although they operate worldwide, with a permanent presence in six countries and a smaller footprint in 15, South Sudan is GMSS’ first foray into East Africa. What makes the country particularly challenging is the pervasive culture of suspicion, Du Toit said. “The biggest restriction is the paranoia of people who should enable development,” he said.

A request to bring in a medical evacuation helicopter was denied, for example, on the grounds that flying a helicopter in the capital of Juba would be a “threat.”

“It’s a flying ambulance,” Du Toit said. “It’s there to rescue people out of the river. If someone in the government gets injured, we can have them back in Juba on life support within an hour.”

Other complicated items include anything deemed hazardous. The government adds increased restrictions on something like a personal flotation device because the Co2 cartridge is a high-pressure vessel.

“People just want a life vest, but they don’t realize it’s a restricted item,” Du Toit said.

Shipping in one PFD can cost upwards of $300 a piece for an item that’s usually $180. With more restrictions, there’s more paperwork, more clearance and more authorization, which means more money, says Du Toit.

He says companies are willing to pay for the efficiency, but in general he’s found it hard to penetrate South Sudan’s international organizations due to the “non-permissiveness” of the environment.

“People close up and organizations want to do everything in house because they don’t want to expose themselves to risk,” he said. In order to get new clients he’s had to personally go door to door in Juba, so that people would speak to him, says Du Toit.

However, Warambo says that’s a misconception.

“We are quite different from corporate entities,” said Warambo of Oxfam. Most international organizations are guided by certain policies and principles, he said, which companies outside the humanitarian space might “find limiting.”

“Procurement within NGOs follow certain donor regulations,” says Warambo. “There are set procedures like types and methods of procurement which are stringent and not as strict as in corporate. It is easier and quite possible for a corporate entity to buy an item from sites like Amazon, which might be possible for Oxfam but not as feasible.”

Even though Oxfam has its own procurement and logistics team, Warambo says if a company is able to get goods out of the port efficiently and quickly and has a good rapport with the relevant people, he’d be open to working with them, as they often struggle with challenges such the scarcity of reputable supplies, obtaining exemption documents and getting things during the rainy season.

GMSS recently launched its online platform with the aim of establishing “first world efficiency” for both government and NGOs in South Sudan. It’s the first website of its kind in South Sudan with a secure payment method so people can order anything from consulting, aid, logistical help, consular, transport, or financial services at the click of a button.

“We do anything you can imagine,” Du Toit said.

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About the author

  • Sam mednick profile

    Sam Mednick

    Sam is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan. Over the past 12 years she’s reported on humanitarian, human interest and conflict stories from around the world. Sam’s work has taken her to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, writing for VICE, the Associated Press, Devex, Barcelona Metropolitan and iPolitics among others. Sam also produces and hosts the Happy Melly Podcast, interviewing authors, speakers and thought leaders about what it takes to live productive and fulfilling lives.

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