Starvation, Plumpy’nut, and the Supply Chain

by Barry List on April 11th, 2011

An analytics conference is usually a place for operations researches and executives to explore ways of improving business, and that’s where the majority of those who came here are finding tips and instruction to bring back to the office. It’s also a place where these very same people can use their skills on humanitarian projects, as Prof. Jay Swaminathan of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who has worked with IBM, explained today.

In a talk, “Supply Chain Analysis Impacts the Lives of Malnourished Children,” he talked about the miracle food Plumpy’nut, a Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic-Food (RUTF) manufactured by Nutriset. Plumpy’nut is a sweet, peanut-based product, distributed in small packets, that delivers 500 calories’ worth of nutrition, the equivalent of a glass of milk fortified with multi-vitamins. It requires no water or mixing. It doesn’t even require chewing – an infant can glom it. It’s a miracle food because a malnourished child too weak to chew food can suck on it and begin to gain strength. Supplied twice a day for six weeks, it can bring a child back from the brink, at a cost of a dollar a day.

But how do you deliver Plumpy’nut to countries with little infrastructure, that are at war, or that have been struck by a natural disaster? Therein came the call for experts in business analytics, operations research, and supply chain management.

Jay, working with a UNC/Duke team on behalf of UNICEF, looked at numerous problems for those providing the RUTF’s – rapidly increasing demand, a bottlenecked single supplier based in Europe, shortages, stockouts, and transportation problems.

This was the state of the supply chain: Plumpy’nut was manufactured at a single facility in France. It was either flown or shipped to countries with high rates of infant malnutrition, especially in the Horn of Africa. It had to be unloaded at docks, which sometimes didn’t happen for weeks. Then it had to be brought to a main warehouse. Then trucked to smaller warehouses. Then delivered along unpaved roads, sometimes past local bandits with guns.

Data was often not kept or written down with paper and pencil, making data collection and analysis difficult. Forecasting was difficult – future demand was uncertain.

Funding didn’t arrive regularly but in spurts, making planning difficult.

Working with information at hand and additional research, the team modeled potential scenarios and made several important recommendations:
• Begin producing Plumpy’nut regionally and in individual countries at risk, thus reducing the cost of delivery and speeding up delivery
• When shipping, ship by sea to avoid higher costs of air delivery
• Locally, provide drivers with cellphones and rapidSMS, a low-cost, easy-to-understand way of reporting delivery and inventory
• Call upon funders to underwrite the depoting of buffer stocks to speed delivery in emergencies and avoid stockouts
• Improve data collection by asking countries to use simple spreadsheets, examine climate forecasts for threat of drought, and share data with manufacturers

The results were promising: Following the adoption of the 2008 report, the number of suppliers increased from 1 to 14; costs went down thanks to local production; UNICEF increased the volume of its shipments by more than double while bringing costs down 10%; and delivery times were shortened.

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