Fort Belvir, VA, Sept. 1, 2017 —
What began as a push to get critical supplies to warfighters supporting the fight against Ebola in West Africa is now a long-term effort to acquire local goods and services for military members across the continent while helping African businesses thrive.
Congress increased the Department of Defense’s authority to use local businesses in Djibouti through the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, creating the Djibouti First Initiative. A new provision in the 2017 NDAA also gave the Defense Logistics Agency and other DoD entities authority to pursue business in other African nations that sign long-term agreements with the United States related to basing and operational requirements.
DLA already uses local procurement to provide items such as fresh fruits and vegetables to troops in places like Europe and the Middle East, so partnering with U.S. Africa Command and the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti to connect local businesses with potential military customers was a logical move, said Tom Lauersen, chief of supplier operations for DLA Troop Support Europe & Africa.
“Buying local just makes sense,” he said. “The closer to customers’ locations that we can get goods, the shorter our lead times and the better the ability to take care of them. It also saves on transportation costs and limits the need for costly storage, especially in places like Camp Lemonnier, where troops are really jammed in and space is limited.”
DLA has local contracts in Africa for ice, bottled water, soda, produce, baked goods, fuel and fuel transportation, distribution services and a broad range of construction materials through DLA Troop Support’s Maintenance, Repair and Operations Program. The MRO program in Djibouti is strong due to its success during Operation United Assistance, when DLA officials worked on the ground to source everything from lumber and gravel to electrical parts needed for the construction of Ebola treatment units, Lauersen said.
“With Djibouti being the biggest base in Africa and plenty of building going on in the area, it was natural for us to connect the vendors we were already doing business with in Liberia to DLA customers in Djibouti,” he said.
Contractors in developing countries often have difficulty understanding the intricacies of government contracting, especially in regards to computer systems and regulatory requirements.
“One of the easier ways to deal with that has been to use the MRO contractors we’re already doing business with to help educate other vendors on things like regulations, requirements, currencies, payment terms and conditions,” Lauersen said. “And, usually, it’s easier for these new vendors to work as subcontractors to our current MRO vendors than it is for them to work with us directly.”
DLA representatives attend events like vendor information days held at the Djiboutian Chamber of Commerce, where vendors can learn how to sell their goods and services to military customers, as well as the process of bidding for and winning government contracts.
The success of Le Moulin, a bakery in downtown Djibouti City, is one example of the hard work and time DLA invests in creating long-term partnerships with local businesses.
“It took about a year to get a contract agreement in place with Le Moulin. When we first came together, they didn’t understand or have computers; they didn’t even have a local bank,” Lauersen said, adding that vendors like Le Moulin typically aim for large, one-time sales with the U.S. government rather than continual sales with reasonable prices.
Poor translation skills were also a problem.
“DLA does have people who speak French, which is common across Africa, or other languages like Spanish, but it takes a lot of time to foster trust and develop a relationship where both sides are comfortable,” he said.
The partnership DLA now has with Le Moulin was worth the struggle, Lauersen added, because now troops on Camp Lemonnier can enjoy fresh baked goods rather than frozen ones imported from outside. Business varies month to month, but customers purchased $20,000 in bakery items from Le Moulin in June.
The lack of modern facilities and passable roads in some of Africa’s 50-plus countries can also become obstacles. While a big city in the coastal nation of Ghana may have a mature infrastructure and offer goods at reasonable prices, for example, moving those goods beyond 10 miles can be a struggle, if not impossible.
“The price can double in that short distance because transportation is so difficult. And then the political environment and conflicts between some countries can make things even more challenging,” Lauersen said.
In fiscal 2016, DLA awarded contracts worth $46.4 million in Djibouti, plus an additional $10 million in other African countries.
“Not only are we supporting the AFRICOM mission, we’re stimulating the economy and providing employment for people in African countries [who] allow us to operate in their space,” Lauersen said. “At the same time, we’re providing troops with products that improve morale and build health.”