A look at how MACS Software is helping Africa manage its drug supply chain
As Africa begins to hint at becoming the manufacturing powerhouse it surely has the potential to be, so the health of its people - the country's greatest asset - comes more clearly into focus. One UK company, MACS Software, is working extensively throughout Africa to improve the procurement, storage and distribution of the country's vital pharmaceutical supplies. It's a big job in a big continent but, as the saying goes, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time – even an African one.
MACS Software is one of the UK's leading suppliers of stock control and warehouse management software. The company has worked in Africa for many years and has current projects in Uganda, Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire), Zimbabwe and Mozambique (República de Moçambique). It was also instrumental in helping to set up a medicines supply chain solution in Rwanda.
In the Republic of Zambia where MACS has been operating for 6 years, MACS has just completed phase one of a significant three-phase project for the Ministry of Health. Phase 2, in association with IBM and the London Business School, to improve drug distribution throughout the country, is currently underway.
The company has also recently appointed an agent in Mozambique to further develop its business in the region.
Richard Miller from MACS has worked on many projects in Africa. He explained that, although the specific problems of working on the continent vary from one country to another, they are all basically the same. "There are problems with electricity supply, adverse weather conditions, poor infrastructure, corruption, procurement is unreliable and there is a great variation in the level of education," he explained. "Part of our job is to design our systems to help prevent abuse and to educate staff to ensure that they get the best out of them."
One specific problem, for example, is that AIDS drugs are supplied free in the Ivory Coast but, across the border in Ghana, they are not. "Stock stolen from Ivory Coast frequently appears on the black market in Ghana," Richard explained. He said that the old manual systems traditionally used in pharmaceutical distribution centres often involved nothing more sophisticated than an Excel spreadsheet, bin cards and double accounting. "These were open to abuse and, if stock did go missing, they provided no opportunity for it to be traced or the culprits to be identified."
Using MACSwms, however, the whole process becomes totally transparent, much more efficient and virtually impossible for criminals to get around. "We record everything that comes in and everything that goes out," said Richard. "Anything that is found on the open market can be traced back to where it came from, who paid for it and who was involved in handling it through the warehouse. There is nowhere to hide with MACSwms." Because stock is counted continuously, and irregularities are spotted immediately, losses can be minimised and likely culprits quickly apprehended.
Another major challenge in warehouses worldwide is ensuring adequate stock turnover. This is particularly important when handling pharmaceutical products, especially in very hot conditions, as drugs can become ineffective if kept beyond their expiry dates, putting lives at risk. MACSwms includes a feature that manages exposure to expiry. Not only does it ensure that stocks closest to the expiry date are distributed first, it also makes sensible decisions by, for example, substituting different pack sizes of a prescribed drug to make up an order if that helps use older stock.
The infrastructure in Africa is a continual problem. Internet access is poor or non-existent, road quality varies considerably and even a reliable electricity supply can be a luxury in some areas. For this reason MACS stongly recommends a robust power back-up system and Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS). Very often the UPS is more important than the power itself, giving operators the time to shut their system down safely without any risk of corrupting data.
One great asset that is common throughout Africa is the friendliness of the people and their insatiable willingness to learn. Part of MACS' function is to provide initial instruction and ongoing training for personnel, sometimes delivered on-site and sometimes back in the UK. Many warehouse managers are pharmacists and not experienced at running warehouses therefore training often includes a basic course in Logistics. Those showing aptitude and enthusiasm are encouraged to take up internationally-recognised logistics qualifications through distance learning. "Training is a very big part of what we do," explained Richard. "It's not a case of deliver it and forget it. We need to train people well so they can get the best out of the MACSwms and continually retrain them to keep them up to date." He did say that this, however, has its dangers for the organisations as there is a rapid turnover of staff, with trained and experienced people being in great demand and often poached by the competition or moved to another department in the public sector to help prevent corruption.
Procurement is a perpetual problem in Africa and suffers from its share of corruption too. MACS supplies a discrete procurement module for its MACSwms, which provides the same level of transparency and traceability to the supply of goods into the warehouse. In addition, MACSwms can interface with a wide range of procurement systems to control the movement of stock into, through and from the warehouse. The system also has the ability to link with quality control systems to help identify sub-standard or counterfeit products and prevent them from continuing in the supply chain.
The challenges in Africa will continue as the continent continues to develop. However, in this one area at least, there is now a level of sophistication that has never been available before and which is having a dramatic and positive effect on people's lives. Thanks to effective stock management and distribution, the people of Africa are now more likely to have regular supplies of efficacious medicines that will enhance their quality of life. This new found health will greatly help them provide the human resources that will drive the region's growth as it accelerates and markets mature.