Disaster Relief, Development, and Supply Chains: The "Last Mile" Challenge

Stephen DeAngelis

January 19, 2011

Yesterday’s earthquake in Pakistan along with recent flooding in Brazil, Sri Lanka and Australia remind us that disasters come as regularly as trains in Switzerland. The floods in Australia had the government scrambling to provide emergency supplies to residents in Queensland. Every disaster brings with it supply chain challenges that would give any supply chain manager nightmares. Most of these challenges are “last mile” challenges — how do you get what’s needed to the people in most desperate need of the help. As innovators think up solutions that deal with those “last mile” challenges, those solutions are likely to find their way into mainstream supply chains as well. This will be especially true as companies penetrate the “bottom billion” market where normal distribution channels don’t work well. What started me thinking about this topic was an article about a “multi-purpose vehicle capable of delivering emergency housing and supplies to disaster areas then rapidly returning to base ready for another mission” [“A.N.T. Aid Necessities Transporter concept vehicle,” by Grant Banks, Gizmag, 4 January 2011]. Banks continues:

“The idea takes inspiration from it’s namesake in the insect world – creating more than just a unique concept vehicle but an entirely new aid distribution system. The A.N.T has been designed to traverse rough terrain that would be impossible for conventional trucks to navigate, delivering supply pods and temporary shelter to disaster stricken communities. The vehicle then transforms itself into a low-profile form for a swift return to headquarters.”

The following video makes the ANT concept a lot clearer.



The ANT can transport a number of different types of containers from housing units to basic supplies. In disaster relief situations, I can envision it transporting a temporary store to a remote area along with the goods to stock it. Such a store could service the needs of remote villages in developing countries. Banks continues:

“The concept was developed by Melbourne (Australia) designer Bryan Lee for his graduate design project while studying Industrial Design at Monash University in 2009. Lee told Gizmag his initial inspiration came from wanting to design a better vehicle for disaster relief. … While researching for his project the student designer came across a documentary that changed the direction of the concept. ‘It was about ants and their colony,’ Lee told Gizmag. ‘I was fascinated with their aesthetics, ability and system they run on which led me to believe that they are truly natures transporters. One of the biggest inspirations I took from ants were how they transported their food back to their nest. In groups. From this, instead of using the conventional way organizations deliver supplies all at once by land, I decided to create a new system where although it carries slightly less, the A.N.T’s will travel back and forth from HQ’s to the disaster zone delivering supplies faster and earlier.’ Just like their insect namesakes, the A.N.T in Transport mode would head towards the disaster stricken area traveling in groups. On arrival the vehicle would quickly deploy the supply unit, which doubles as a temporary housing module. The A.N.T would then rotate its cockpit section 90 degrees downwards transforming to Rapid mode allowing the swarm of A.N.T.s to quickly travel back to headquarters ready to load up another supply unit.”

Some distribution companies are already using some interesting and unconventional delivery vehichles to meet the needs of customers in crowded or remote locations. I suspect that the ANT could become another tool in their kit. Banks concludes:

“The A.N.T employs a number of intelligent design features that allow for swift aid distribution. These include six independent electric in-wheel motors, a large unique all-terrain suspension system that also allows for rapid loading and deployment of supply units, rotational hydraulics for transformation from Transport to Rapid modes, and a well thought out supply unit design that doubles as temporary housing.”

An organization called VillageReach, is focused on helping find “last mile” solutions in developing countries. On its website, the organization points out that millions of dollars of research and development aimed at helping the world’s poor becomes meaningless if the results of that R&D can’t reach the people it is intended to help. Concerning the area of healthcare (which faces challenges involving transportation and cold chain costs), the site states:

“Without addressing the distribution capabilities for health systems, the world risks an innovation pile-up, where the intended value of the billions being spent on research and development may not be realized.”

This notion is nothing new for supply chain professionals. They have a great appreciation for “last mile” challenges. You don’t have to head to the developing world to encounter them. Kenneth K. Boyer, Andrea M. Prud’homme, and Wenming Chung note, “The operational challenges underlying consumer direct delivery are daunting. Numerous companies have failed due to operational and logistical problems encountered with delivering orders directly to customers.” [“The Last Mile Challenge: Evaluating the Effects of Customer Density and Delivery Window Patterns,” Journal of Business Logistics, 1 January 2009]. They continue:

“As an illustration of the benefits and challenges of increasing customer density, consider three groups of customer delivery types. Of the 115.9 million residences in the United States, 30% are in central cities, 46% are in suburban areas, and 34% are outside of metropolitan areas (U.S. Government 2001). Approximately 30% of U.S. households have a non-working or ‘at-home’ adult that may be available to accept a package in person (Laseter, Torres, and Chung 2001), although that person would not necessarily be available all day, every day. Logistics providers face different challenges within each demographic category:

“* 30% of households are in high density central city areas which provide the highest level of efficiency in terms of deliveries per mile and delivery route efficiency, but may result in a less safe environment for packages left unattended when a recipient is unable to accept a package in person, or in some other secured manner.

“* 46% of households are located in suburban areas that may be more secure for unattended packages, but the increased unpredictability of route and delivery stops on a daily basis provide much less opportunity for logistics providers to successfully optimize routes or the travel distance per package, resulting in greater route inefficiencies.

“* 34% of households are in rural settings, which may be the most secure for unattended packages but require the greatest travel distances between deliveries, have very inefficient routes, and are difficult to economically justify. …

“The routing of vehicles for effective service delivery is an area of critical importance to logistics organizations and researchers. Hundreds of papers have been written on various aspects of routing.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how routing challenges are exacerbated during disasters where streets are under water and bridges have collapsed. Even the ANT can’t overcome all of the “last mile” challenges that may be encountered. “Last mile” challenges are found in a number of sectors and not all of those challenges involve the physical movement or placement of things.


In the video found below, MacArthur “genius award” winner Sendhil Mullainathan provides a good overview of the “last mile” challenge and discusses how it affects development. He sees the same “innovation pileup” discussed by VillageReach. He goes on to describe how marketing and behavioral science can be used to help solve some of the challenges. The video takes about 18 minutes to watch, but it is very interesting.



The “last mile” challenge is an interesting topic because it has such significant impact in a wide variety of human activities. No sector, however, is more aware of the challenges associated with the last mile than the supply chain sector. I suspect that ideas will flow both ways between the commercial and humanitarian sectors as individuals and organizations try to solve these “last mile” challenges.


As a closing note, I’d like to return to the ongoing disasters around the world. Humanitarian aid is going to be needed to help people recover. One year on from the earthquake disaster in Haiti, we’re reminded that the next disaster always draws funds away from the last one. That means that every donated dollar is precious. If you are thinking about giving to charity, give wisely. After every disaster fake charities pop up to steal money from well-intentioned people. Blog reader Joseph Morris linked me to a site his organization just posted that can help you give wisely [“Give Smart: 25 Websites to Learn a Charity’s Effectiveness & Efficiency,” Masters In Public Administration]. The site is worth checking out before you decide which organizations should receive your donations.