A Global Supply Chain for Global Health

One of the issues we’ve been tackling with the Global Health Nexus, Seattle organization is how to truly bring public and private stakeholders together for the benefit of local global health organizations. We know that it has to be mutually beneficial, especially for corporations that are motivated by core business issues, but it should also take advantage of those unique aspects of our region, its location and its business community. In the past, we’ve thrown out some ideas – from corporate social responsibility to emerging market business development – but it seems like there’s one selling point that is rising above the rest: supply chain development and utilization.

There are two reasons that local global health organizations are thinking about supply chain issues: 1) the cold chain and 2) affordability. In terms of the former, global health products like vaccines must remain cold at all times, or risk going bad. In terms of the latter, there are sometimes advantages to outsourcing manufacturing; as the Seattle Times points out:

Companies in India, China and Brazil will likely be partners in future vaccine development. “Because they’re developing products for their own large domestic markets, where the kind of pricing of the U.S. and Europe isn’t going to work, they’re more inclined to think about affordability in the design,” Elias said.

Now, cold chain and global outsourcing are both complicated issues, especially for nonprofit organizations that are trying to focus on healing the world’s poorest citizens. But here’s the great thing: our region’s companies happen to be some of the leading corporations in the world for supply chain management! Think about it: Boeing has operations all around the country and the world making parts for the 787; Starbucks is sourcing its coffee from some of the same countries that global health organizations are working in; and Amazon, REI and Costco are buying and selling retail products pretty much everywhere. And that’s just a few of the examples.

So, what’s the “there’ there? How can we bring together this need from the global health organizations to match a strength of local companies in a way that’s mutually beneficial. Now, I’m not a corporate guy, but I have a theory that corporations might like to be able to donate services in lieu of money; if it’s truly leveraging their existing assets, they’d not only be giving something that costs them less than cash, but also getting public recognition for their best practices. (In a world where UPS’s new slogan is “We Love Logistics,” it’s apparently something that companies want to shout about.)

So, here are some thoughts as to what the ask to those companies could be:

1) The Corporate Supply Chain Consulting Program: Build some sort of interface between corporate supply chain folks and global health people. It could be a monthly speaker series, a mentorship program or a problem-solving taskforce…some way to capture that knowledge and transfer it. Companies using their employees’ expertise as a philanthropic donation = win-win.

2) The Supply Chain Leverager: What if a local company used container ships to trasmit its products to Asia or Africa? And what if that TEU was only half full, for whatever reason? Well, it should would be cool to be able to load the other half with refrigerated vaccine cases! Or what if Boeing was delivering a plane to a customer in India? Again, maybe global health organizations could put stuff in there to transport for free..or maybe global health workers could catch a free ride. The challenge would be to coordinate this, sometimes at the last minute (since deliveries are often delayed or rushed). Enter: the Nexus staff person known as the Supply Chain Leverager? Again, it’s no extra cost to these companies, but they get to trumpet it as philanthropic investment.

One last point. Often, what large corporations want in exchange for their philanthropy/community service is recognition in their own communities. Engaging in global work doesn’t necessarily achieve that, and so it serves as a big disincentive to companies to focus their corporate social responsibility work on something like global health. So this might actually be the most powerful impact that Nexus can have: solving that “market failure” in a way that facilitates/allows corporations to invest globally and get credit locally. Nexus’ programs – from webcasts to major local events – are all about letting the world know about the cool global health stuff going on here…and making sure our local community appreciates it. Cultivating that local pride in our global health strength is a key outcome that we’re shooting for; and if we’re successful, then a local company’s contributions to global health will be celebrated locally too.

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