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A day in the life of a supply chain manager on his first mission

Blog by Gilles  Sinnaeve - April 2018

A new day dawns in Masisi, a small remote Congolese mountain village in North Kivu, where I have been living for 6 months. Getting out of bed, I wonder what the day will bring. Every day brings new problems to solve! I head to the hut – the murmur of conversation and the smell of pancakes waft towards me. We are lucky to have national staff looking after us, meaning that we can concentrate on our work at the project without worrying about hot meals, clean clothes and hot water (stored in frigo boxes) for our daily shower. So while I contentedly mix hot and cold water for the ideal temperature, I think of all the MSF missions which do not have our (admittedly basic, but real) level of comfort.

I leave the base mechanically announcing my departure and arrival locations, then clip my walkietalkie to my belt. I head for the Supply office. I've now been there 5 months and feel my efforts are beginning to pay off. The cultural barriers are slowly diminishing, although they never really disappear entirely. I now, for example, have a particular way of greeting everyone with a little key phrase. I take the most pride in advances made with the 10 members of my Supply team. I repeat a few words of Swahili, learned by heart or simply repeated, and switch between talking about my previous life and the training in hand, as a way of getting to know them better. They now have full confidence in my ability to take decisions on all Supply matters for this enormous project!

If I think about it too much, I get dizzy. I am manager of 10 Congolese, manager of medical and nonmedical inventory, and procurement manager. My job is to supply the entire project, with all that that implies. This includes documentary management of paper orders, a computerised system for linking each available item with its price and supplier, encoding of paper orders in the computer and following them up. And when supplies arrive, it is again necessary to ensure they are dispatched to the right store / the right person.

A lot of responsibility

If I think about it too much, I get dizzy. I am manager of 10 Congolese, manager of medical and non-medical inventory, and procurement manager. My job is to supply the entire project, with all that that implies.

I remember my first 3 months. When I didn't know what to do, I looked helplessly at the national staff dealing with the daily running of the department. They always replied “It'll be fine, we've known worse, chill out.” With their advice and experience, my technical skills in Excel and database management were in great demand. That gave me a sense of legitimacy vis-à-vis the community.

Here is an aspect I came to understand later : international expatriates are there to learn from national staff and, as far as possible, to support and protect them. In a context where the family plays a crucial role and desperately needs to bring in money, imagine having a national staff member in charge of recruitment for a vacant post? It would be an untenable position, attracting rage and praise in equal measure from the community, and could revive tensions, upsetting the equilibrium in the region which MSF tries every day to maintain. So we are there to lighten the responsibilities which could put national staff in danger. What does this mean for Supply? My signature on as many documents as possible in fact allows national staff to work serenely.

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Today there was a crisis in the Supply department : impossible to find a package, even though the receipt was signed (making the signatory liable). General panic, imagine a national staff member, the breadwinner of a large family, losing a package worth several hunderd dollars? Fortunately the goods concerned were found, having been put away inadvertently by a well-imeaning soul with a short memory.

Worn out after a long day, I am back in the camp, a shanty town of sheet metal and plywood under the mocking gaze of big crows. As always, it is difficult to “switch off” work mode, given the general ambiance : it is forbidden to leave the camp for security reasons, and the whole team is really committed. So we work a lot. Because that's why we're here, and because in any case there's very little else to do in the area!

Weekends are for calmly finishing what we were too busy to finish during the week, for doing little work and enjoying sport or celebrating with the team of national and expatriate staff : a birthday or just another week in Masisi. It's amazing how calm it is in these mountains.

Sometimes I ask myself if these reports of trouble in north Kivu are true. Then every week someone tells me about troop movements around Masisi, the increasing ievel of insecurity… Then I hear people fetching the wounded in this region I am getting to know… I hear them when I cross the hospital to get to the medical store. I finally remind myself that it's good to be in Supply. A technical job which supports an entire project, if not in the front line. Perfect for my personality : having responsibility but in a supporting role, looking for solutions to all kinds of problems but not directly facing violence.

Then I think of MSF-Supply, the warehouse in Belgium serving all MSF Belgium's projects, where I worked for 2 years before this mission. A documentary was made to present MSF-Supply : “Men from the Shadows”. A lovely title! I am, like everyone in the chain striving to send drugs or logistic equipment to the most isolated and dangerous regions, a man from the shadows. Not claiming to change anything, no indeed, but at least fighting for these people, for national staff working for MSF and then for all the wounded. That too is MSF. People who strive to dress a wound that is too big with a bandage that is too small. And now you know whose job it is to find the cheapest bandage, quality and delivery time included.

© MSF - Gilles  Sinnaeve on the right