Managing a Supply Chain in DR Congo

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

African countries, with some of the highest growth figures registered, are becoming the go-to places for many western countries' companies trying to expand and find more profitable and less saturated markets. But going into Africa is not without risks or tracasseries , and companies struggle with challenges such as poor infrastructure, difficult administrative and trade procedures or lack of Supply Chain visibility.

Trucks in Lubumbashi getting ready to leave for Mbuji Mayi

I recently worked on a project in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), helping MEBS Global to set up the Supply Chain for the import of a large number of containers of bed nets and pharmaceuticals in the Kasai and Katanga provinces. The country certainly has a whole lot of challenges and managing a Supply Chain is a complex recipe requiring a spoon of local knowledge, a couple of cups of African logistics expertise, a sachet of advance planning, along with a good portion of local contacts and zest of luck.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is Africa's second largest country after Algeria, sitting at the center of the African continent, more than 3 times the size of France, but possesses less than 3,000 Km of paved roads, a railway systems and bridges dating from the colonial times and with a massive area of rainforest. It is the largest reserve of sweet water in Africa and one of the world's largest. Despite having massive wealth underground in natural resources, the country stands 182nd out of 190 on the World Bank Ease of doing business ranking and 120th out of 160 for the United Nations Logistics Performance index. Surely, there are more complicated countries, but it still holds its good share of defies and uncertainties when it comes to managing a Supply Chain.

When it comes to managing your transportation and Supply Chain projects in Democratic Republic of Congo, you certainly need to have a plan and a good once, but be aware that your plan is not going to work as you planned it. Nonetheless you still design your plan in the hope that some of it will work.

I will therefore do my best to provide you with some (the list is not exhaustive as the creativity is endless when it comes to challenges in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Supply Chain):

Dealing with administrative processes

Administrative processes of all sorts are generally tedious, pretty much anywhere in the world, long and unpredictable in most African countries, but they can reach extremes in DRC. Although improvements at the customs operations were seen through recently implemented information systems, the processes remain cumbersome, mainly paper-driven, with clearing agents running from one office to another in the hope to get their papers stamped, to make them progress in the chain.

At the congested border offices, as trucks arrive at the border, the various verifications can generally take a few days, without certitude. Despite being paper-driven, the process still ends up needing the IT system to release the new document allowing them to exist, and internet black outs are frequent at this stage. You therefore end up spending a couple of days waiting for your containers to be released from customs, praying for the internet to come back.

And that is only the easy piece. Should you have to deal with tax exempt shipments, the process, started at the capital city a few months earlier might still not be finalized as the trucks gets at the border, after their 1-month travel by ocean and their 15 day's journey from the Tanzanian port of Dar Es Salam. Here again, slowness of the administration or the grievance of the person responsible of signing your paper may delay it for another week or two, as you wait for the right person to approve your import. What about your trucks, then? They wait and accrue extra costs for truck detention.

Oh, and regularly, processes change without prior communication, creating more confusion in the clearing agent pool at the border, not expecting the new form they should have filled at the stage 3 of the process.

As you can imagine, all that adds up and can transform a one-week process into a month process if you are not careful. Be aware of that and plan for extra time in managing your client's or your boss's expectations. You'd rather conservative.

The lack of infrastructure

We all know that African roads can be tough, picturing large semi-trucks driving on the red earthed paths across the African savannah. But the roads (the lack of) in DRC reach an all other level. With about 6 months of heavy rainy season in most parts of the country, and very soft earth, the combination creates some of the muddiest roads of the continent. After a few months of rain, trucks start to get stuck for days, sometimes weeks or even months at a mud spot in a deep on the road surrounded by rainforest. The mud is becoming so soft that it feels like going through a lake and praying you manage to get out on the other side then repeat the process at the next spot. In the most remote parts of the country, the trucks adventuring there become smaller and with an increased number of wheels (getting to 8x8), essential to go through and back quickly enough. Certainly, Congolese drivers are among the most experienced, creative and gifted drivers in the world, with many rainy seasons driving on the liquid tracks in the bush.

But lack of roads is one thing, and with the appropriate and surely more expensive trucks and pieces of equipment (and strategy), you manage to reach your destination. But sometimes the half century old iron bridges don't survive the passage of series of overloaded trucks and end up collapsing. Without the one bridge allowing you to cross the river, forget taking that road, drivers end up having to easily do a 250 300 km detour on secondary roads. Surely all that adds some additional costs not accounted for in your plan.

A bridge which collapsed with an overloaded truck, resulting in a 300 km detour for our trucks

Extra costs will have to be planned in your budgets, as again unanticipated problems and change of routing might bump up your costs at one point or another.

The Railway

The southern part of the DRC has and still operate a railway system, dated from the colonial times. The main lines go to the north to Kananga, passing by Mwene Ditu, stop for our mosquito nets before finishing the journey to Mbuji Mayi.

Lubumbashi Railway station

The railway is mostly used by mining companies operating in DRC to bring their equipment and consumables and on the way back export their minerals. The line is operated on regular basis, but not with a set frequency, and it is hard to come with your containers and just join the party. Also, you know more or less when the train leaves, but you don't know when it will arrive, so you keep praying.

That said, you have the option of asking for your own train, with your own wagons if you have enough cargo. But then you don't know when you will leave, as empty wagons in good shape are to be found, brought to the loading dock, two by two if you are lucky, and kept in a parking until the full train is ready to leave. Hopefully, you get the locomotive on time, otherwise, just wait some more and it will be brought for departure, eventually.

As you understood, the rail looks like a fantastic option in a roadless country, and it is. However, you should be patient, not put all your eggs in the same basket, do some due diligence in how they will perform in the coming months, and not expect too tight deadlines for your goods.

The cultural notion of time

How long would you say it should take for a fully loaded truck to depart after having signed the relevant documents? An hour, maybe two? Well, the reality is slightly different, as the truck broker (guy helping you get the trucks) and the truck drivers now need to arrange for: printing all documents they need to get through the check points and tolls (they only had four days to do that), then have them stamped by the authority (is that a new process, couldn't be anticipated?), surely do some sort of maintenance before leaving, fuel the trucks and attach extra barrels for their over 1,000 km journey. That might take another day if you manage to put a gentle pressure, and then the driver still has to do his shopping on the road to buy food and makala for the journey, as he is leaving for about 10 to 12 days, if he doesn't get stuck at a mud spot on the road somewhere.

There is definitely a different sense of time and urgency, and that is indisputably cultural. Although trucks have been loaded for a few days, and had to wait some more