Can multi-modal mean more than trucks, trains boats and planes?

Making supply chains work

Making supply chains work

“If somebody bought it; somebody brought it” said my Yorkshire born Uncle when I told him that I was working in Logistics many years back. I had become an ardent advocate of the new rocket science and such common sense logic seemed to bring all talk of sophisticated materials handling equipment back to earth with a thud. 

Take a look at how things move in remote rural areas or, in crowded cities worldwide and those images of bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws, handcarts and wheelbarrows carrying goods in all sizes, food, water and people and it seems a world away from sophisticated logistics. However, even the Dabawallas featured in a Post below – Green Distribution in a Mega City – have a Six Sigma classification.

Such basic transportation is far from anachronistic; it provides vital – and affordable – portability and innovative designers worldwide are working hard to improve pay load and productivity of even the most basic form of transportation. So, can multi modal transport mean more than trucks, rail, boats and planes? What about low cost improvements in the carriage of goods all along the supply chain?

There are many examples of non-motorised transport criss-crossing crowded cities and connecting remote settlements worldwide. In Somalia, refugee blacksmiths have built donkey carts to haul wood or water on rough dirt tracks; in Vietnam, bamboo frames have been adapted for bicycles so that the owners walk alongside but their payload is more efficient to move; in Bangladesh, carts have been adapted to carry bullocks to market – so that they don’t lose weight along the way. And all over India adapted auto rickshaws move products into the gulleys and markets.

Paul Polak makes many such examples in his book Out of Poverty and, elsewhere he laments the fact that 90% of design benefits less than 10% of the population. And much of that innovative effort ends up generating ideas that have not been sensitive to the collateral damage they can cause. Think of the Hummer – it was designed to … carry?

There is real scope to explore the supply chains that connect remote settlements with products from the mainstream or, explore ways in which things move around our ever more crowded cities. An estimated 1 billion people lack access to an all weather road and this means access supplies and, to urban markets. This is where innovative design could produce revolutionary results. And yet, these innovations have to conform to a different set of rules. First, they must be affordable and clearly scaleable. Take the Big Boda load carrying bicycle from Kenya. This is no more than a low cost frame extension called the long tail. It has been designed to be compatible with the Chinese made single speed bicycle that has a dominant market share all over Africa. This is just one example of “bikes that haul for all“.


Recently, I learned of work being done on a cold chain in India. Instead of being state of the art facilities run on best practice principles transferred from the Developed world; a more affordable solution had been implemented. The company in question had opted for Reefers – refridgerated containers – hooked up to an equally portable generator. Think of the scope to adjust location and, add or reduce capacity as real volumes play a role in supply chain configuration. Lt’s turn to connectivity itself.

Transformational Logistics can play a role in integrating these initiatives into hybrid supply chains that work within informal markets or, bridge with the formal economy.

Elsewhere, in locations ravaged by war or dislocated by natural disaster, Logistics can enable the transformation of an economy into the market by through a wide range of  logistics initiatives. For example, companies like IRG (International Resource Group) are at the forefront of developing infrastructure as part of post-conflict stabalisation.

Nearly one half of all low-income countries have experienced major conlict since 1980. Imagine the chaos. As Rick Whitaker, IRG Senior Manager working on Energy and Environmental projects in Liberia highlights – “reconstruction can initiate, rather than follow stabalisation.” After all, parts of  Liberia were without power for fourteen years! Mr Whitaker makes another telling point in stressing that investment in human capacity must precede investment in infrastructure. Or, there could be a lot of equipment left there to rust.

Think again of where the Majority World live, shop and work. There is so much opportunity to make things move better, cheaper and faster. And innovative thinking does not have to stop short at physical movement of goods. Take information flow and ways in which technology such as mobile phones can make a difference. Elsewhere, we highlight how Kerala fishermen use mobile phones to compare prices; AgriWatch are doing the same in remote rural areas and the same technology can be used to order ahead before a Mother makes the journey to collect food for the family.

All such innovations in the logistics flow of goods, information and cash can transform lives and livelihoods. Maybe we can extend this to the infrastructure that enables all this to happen. Consider this …

Inca civilisation stretched thousands of miles and yet, they had not discovered the wheel. Each settlement was connected by well maintained tracks connected by suspension bridges wide enough for runners to pass.

Maybe there is scope to develop a similar network of connecting pathways in remote areas and even to explore ways in which non-motorised transport can be integrated into inner city transport plans and, even become a hotbed of innovative transport design. They say that Formula 1 is justified because of the technology breakthroughs that it generates for the mainstream.

What about innovation on portability in the informal economy generating ideas on sustainability and urban living for the mainstream in much the same way? Bicycle tracks don’t have to be built just for the middle classes on a fitness binge; those same cycle lanes could have a revolutionary effect if they were designed for micro loads and market accessibility.

When all is said and done, if somebody bought it – it doesn’t matter if it gets there on a bike. It could be faster and more fuel efficient than a truck stuttering through ever more crowded streets at a speed slower than London in the 17th century. It doesn’t have to be state of the art to work and transform lives.

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One Response to Can multi-modal mean more than trucks, trains boats and planes?

  1. Duncan Morgan says:

    Given the gulf that many developing nations find in competing in industrial markets, the major focus often both internally and externally is agriculture. I was interested to read of the company in India deploying reefer units tactically to support a chill chain. If you consider liquid milk, if you can maintain the chill chain between 2 to 5C then the milk will have a life of 20 days, however, for every hour that you let the chill chain fail, you will loose 1 day of life. Now that stat is from Northern Europe, if applied to warmer climes I suspect that the impact would be significantly higer. Consequently, whether one was moving milk or fruit, both of which are valuable commodities and subject to condition loss, then the ability to access a holding / staging post whether for in-bound commodities or outbound produce will be vital. The simplicity of the reefer units can be supported by commuiations units fitted into containers and very quickly you can create a staging post for a very rural farming co-operative to be able to compete and improve the supply of food by systematically reducing time to market but also minimising waste. Critically, if you were following post conflict or natural disaster this kind of operation can be up and running very quickly to aid the flow of food and revenue.

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