Ethiopia – Supply Chain Mngt


In October 2008, Ethiopia experienced crippling droughts. Faced with the possibility of famine, UNICEF Ethiopia launched a massive food distribution program to supply the high-protein food Plumpy’nut to under-nourished children at more than 1,800 feeding centres in the country. Previously, UNICEF monitored the distribution of food by sending a small set of individuals who traveled to each feeding center. The monitor wrote down the amount of food that was received, was distributed, and if more food was needed. There had been a two week to two month delay between the collection of that data and analysis, prolonging action. In a famine situation each day can mean the difference between recovery, starvation, or even death. The Ethiopian implementation of RapidSMS completely eliminated the delay.

Country Profile

One of the oldest countries in the world, landlocked Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous nation. Despite recent economic growth and sorely needed rainfall, poverty and hunger remain widespread in Ethiopia. Millions continue to face chronic food insecurity and water shortages. Much of the population lacks access to clean water, health care and education. A lingering border dispute with Eritrea has threatened to escalate.

The 2008 UNDP Human Development Report ranked the country 169th out of 177 countries in factors such as average life expectancy (51.8 years), adult literacy (35.9 percent), GDP per capita (US$1055), and percentage of underweight children under five years (38 percent).  Malnutrition is responsible for more than half of all deaths among children under age five. The number of chronically malnourished children has decreased since 1996, but remains alarmingly high.

The Scenario

With the onset of acute food shortages, UNICEF launched a massive food distribution program in June 2008 to supply Plumpy’nut, a ready-to-use high protein and energy peanut-based paste, for under-nourished children in the southern regions of Ethiopia. The UNICEF Country Office distributed 193,130 cartons of Plumpy’nut from 1,852 distribution centers.

Previous tracking systems relied on subcontracted field monitors, who reported Plumpy’nut distribution and stock levels on a fortnightly basis over the phone and/or by fax. This was then complied into a regional fortnightly report. Due to the large numbers of distribution centers, UNICEF Ethiopia aimed to report on 20% of them. Additionally, the time lag did not allow UNICEF to quickly respond to the increased needs or low supply levels in remote areas.

RapidSMS Implementation and Results

RapidSMS Ethiopia was designed specifically to:

  • To monitor reporting activity,
  • View and analyze incoming supply reports immediately,
  • Send custom messages to field monitors,
  • Broadcast announcements and updates to all field monitors,
  • Export data to Excel,
  • Generate customized reports,
  • Visualize data (delivery status, number of new beneficiaries, stock levels, etc) on a map,
  • Generate graphical summaries of activities

The RapidSMS Ethiopia pilot went live on Monday 27th October, 2008. After an initial one-day Rapid SMS training session, thirty-three monitors, each with a mobile phone, were dispatched to the field. Monitors were provided with a dial-in number and six predesignated codes which they would enter into their phones followed by their monitoring data. Having sent the text data to UNICEF, the data was then automatically summated by the RapidSMS computer program into a real time report (as opposed to the existing system of waiting two weeks for monitors to return from the field).

The new RapidSMS system enabled the collection of data on stock balance, new admissions, location of distribution centers, and the quantity of Plumpy’nut received and consumed in pilot districts. As anticipated, there were initially learning and teething problems from monitors reporting from the field and consequently the first two weeks of data received was treated with some skepticism as in some instances mistakes were clearly apparent. However, midway through the testing period, 64% of the monitors had mastered the system and were providing accurate input. By the end of the testing period, all monitors were conversant with the system.

Field monitors also became familiar with some of the more advanced functions of RapidSMS. For example – sending alerts advising ‘there is no stock’. These alerts, received in real time, enabled the nutrition section to dispatch immediate replenishments (rather than waiting for up to two weeks for a monitor to return from the field with the information). At the conclusion of the test period, all participants agreed that the trial had been successful and that RapidSMS had proved to be an ideal tool to conduct real time monitoring.

With the conclusion of the pilot on 4th December, 2008, UNICEF recieved: 

939 UNIQUE REPORTS, 10-50 reports every day. This number is similar to reporting with the traditional system, however, reports were received every day instead of fortnightly and information is automatically entered into database.

Each report contained:

  • Quantity of Plumpynut Received
  • Quantity of Plumpynut Consumed
  • Number of New Admissions
  • Contact Information for Reporting Field Monitor
  • Location of Distribution Center
  • Current Stock Balance

740 INCOMING MESSAGES, containing between 1 and 15 reports. As the pilot continued, field monitors became more familiar with RapidSMS and explored its advanced functionality voluntarily. Based on their interaction, we improved the usability of the system to reduce reporting errors.

81 ALERTS, above and beyond the standard data collected in their reports ranging from “The supply room was left unlocked” to “There is NO STOCK remaining at this OTP!” Of the 33 field monitors enrolled, participation in the pilot has been very successful. Despite travelling in pairs, 21 of the field monitors have successfully submitted reports: a 64 per cent participation rate, even though only 50 per cent is required for full coverage.

The initial target by the UNICEF Ethiopia field office was a “limited snapshot” of the conditions at 20 per cent of distribution centers. Of the 1852 distribution centers initially imported into RapidSMS, reports have been received for 939: 44 per cent coverage in five weeks.

Lessons Learned

Training and Reinforcement

Training needs to be thorough and practical trial tests made before monitors are dispatched to the field. Printed and laminated documentation, including instructions and examples of how to submit SMS reports, should be provided.



Prepaid, postpaid or toll-free numbers should be secured in advance of any project. This often takes time to arrange with telecommunications providers and should not be left to the last minute. Additionally, regional or national partnerships with mobile phone providers should be established wherever possible. Focus should not be on discounts for ‘bulk messaging’, but using a Corporate Social Responsibility approach to highlight the life saving service which is being implemented.

Internal Project Support at Initial Stages

A field based staff member/consultant should be dedicated part time to the project until tasks are handed over to appropriate stakeholders. Key functions should be keeping momentum for the project moving, ensuring that data is being monitored and acted on when appropriate, and liaising with outside partners (ie MoH, MoE) and ensuring their roles and responsibilities within the project are clear and fulfilled. This person needs to be able to have dedicated time to push all the moving parts through, with a strong interest in the success of the project.

Disruption of SMS service

There is the potential for disruption of RapidSMS service if telecommunications carrier service is intermittent or SMS services are shut down by the government. Due to this, there continues to be a need to maintain paper based systems for back-up.

New Functionality Added to RapidSMS

  • Free form ‘alerts’ allowing users
  • Data visualization on web interface
  • Spatial mapping of data points on web interface
  • User groups and custom blast messaging

Links to Related News

Preventing Famine with a Mobile |  (Dec 21, 2008) The RapidSMS Ethiopia project went live on 27 October, 2008. As of 4th December, 2008, the organization had received 939 unique reports


pdf RapidSMS Ethiopia Pilot Results

jpg RapidSMS Ethiopia Workflow

pdf RapidSMS Ethiopia User Guide

pdf RapidSMS Ethiopia Lessons Learned