For any manufacturing company, making sure that the supply chain works effectively, from raw materials through to customers, is vital. Sourcing raw materials is fairly straightforward, but getting products to their end users can be a real headache.
Products such as those made by Freeplay are designed for use by people living off-grid - often in remote, rural locations, in aid and development environments or as part of a major emergency response programme – and they rely on local logistics infrastructures to reach their destination.
Those infrastructures need to be robust and efficient. But, thanks to conflict, economic collapse, corruption and a range of other factors, they can instead be weak, ineffective, highly bureaucratic and woefully slow.
So, whilst suppliers, as well as aid agencies and NGOs, can respond quickly to the urgent needs of people on the ground, goods can remain impounded at ports of entry for lengthy periods just a few miles from where they are required.
Which is why it is vital that, in any scenario where speed of response is a key factor, manufacturers and their shippers have the experience to identify logistical weaknesses and potential delays, and the expertise to figure out ways to circumvent them.
A case in point is South Sudan, which recently took delivery of a major consignment of Freeplay's solar and dynamo-powered radios and lighting systems. Whilst the country is still very young, having been founded in 2011, its import/export infrastructure is very much as it was when the country was still united with its northern neighbour.
As business commentators Economy Watch (http://www.economywatch.com/world_economy/sudan/export-import.html) say, "Import restrictions, discriminatory taxes, delays in customs clearance and non-transparent regulations are some of the factors impeding Sudanese trade." In other words, challenging!
However, Freeplay Energy has been here before, both metaphorically and figuratively. Millions of our products are currently in use around the world, a large proportion of which have passed through somewhat shaky import processes. So when we were approached to supply thousands of radios on behalf of one of the world's largest aid agencies, we knew at least some of the issues that were bound to arise.
And we were right about most of them, so our consignment reached its destination as planned.
Which is not to say that there were no hiccups along the way. A vast array of forms needed to be completed, duty payments or duty waivers were required at various stages of the process and additional, last-minute requests for seemingly irrelevant information had to be fielded. Indeed, at one point, staff in the UK had to establish and supply the authorities with the registration number and mobile phone contact for a fully-laden truck which was waiting to be released from a bonded area in South Sudan.
But throughout the process, Freeplay's experience and knowledge of shipping goods to 'difficult' locations, our partnerships with some outstanding freight forwarders in the region and our (and our forwarders') list of contacts on the ground ensured that the consignment's arrival was never in doubt.
We are proud to say that Freeplay's solar-powered and dynamo-powered radios are now being used in South Sudan to support displaced young people's education and keep families updated on the latest news. The radios are doing exactly what they were designed to do: to help improve the lives of those living off-grid.