Nepal Earthquake: How CARE Buys in an Emergency

Nepal Earthquake: How CARE Buys in an Emergency

Publication info

Yen Tan

Yen Tan, is a Senior Procurement Specialist for CARE. Yen has been working for CARE for 15 years on procurement. He was the first experienced procurement staff member recruited by the organisation and has worked with CARE in a number of different emergencies around the world.

For me the three core principles of good procurement are quality, quantity and timeliness. Can I buy the amount I need, is it good quality and how quickly can the supplier get it to me so I can get it out to the people who need it? Last but not least making sure you are getting the best price by negotiations.

Working in procurement is different from just being a “buyer.” If you need a new laptop a buyer will ask you – “which laptop do you want?” A procurement person will never ask you this. They want to know what specifications on the laptop – how much memory you need, processor speed, what you’re using it for and then they’ll come back to you with a range of different quotes for it out of your request.

When an order for soap comes in, for example, the first thing I do is head straight down to the local shopping mall to take a look at the different brands and types on offer. I buy samples, check each of them out and then make a decision after also discussing it with our hygiene and sanitation specialists. This way they can see exactly what I am buying and if it is appropriate to be sent to the people who need it.

Whenever possible CARE always tries to buy locally; it is quicker and often cheaper. For example, we found a company here in Nepal who make entire sanitary latrine kits for a fraction of the price of normal latrine slabs and they provide a whole kit that’s ready to go. Often, if just a little bit of research is done, it can lead to big improvements. I’m always trying to improve and improvise how and what we buy. We have to be flexible and progressive to the context and changing markets, otherwise you get stuck giving out things people no longer want or need.

“I'm always trying to improve and improvise”

Buying locally saves transportation costs and it changes the whole timeframe we’re working with. It cuts out things like time taken crossing the border and import/export duties. At the moment we are doing about 50/50 local – international buying, but we’re looking to move to seventy-five per cent local procurement going forward. Not only does buying locally save huge amounts of time in delivery; meaning we can get it out to the people who need it quicker, but after a huge emergency like this, it helps boost and rebuild the local economy – channeling much needed money into the country.

There are, of course, always downsides and we have to be careful when buying in bulk not to unbalance the market and cause prices to rise too much for local buyers. That’s why it’s always important to balance international and local procurement.

Here in Nepal, as with many of the other countries I’ve worked in, the biggest challenge in my work and to the emergency response, is being able to buy the huge quantity of relief items we need. Early on in an emergency response local markets get flooded as all the humanitarian actors are trying to buy the same kind of items in the same market and we often face major shortages of key aid items. We have, for example, been buying corrugated iron sheeting in country to help people build more durable shelters before the monsoon season starts. But now the market has dried up due to the huge demand from all the different humanitarian organisations. I was only able to get hold of part of the number we needed and was told it would take another 30-40 days to get the rest. Monsoon season is supposed to start any day now so the only alternative was to go to the nearest neighbour country – in this case India – and try to get the rest from there. It is a permanent problem that in an emergency I always need things yesterday. 

“My job is to try to make things as easy as possible out in the field”

Generally, my job is to try to make things as easy as possible out in the field. So I go out and find somebody who has at least fifty per cent of the items of, for example a shelter kit, and let him source the other fifty per cent and package it together. Imagine- trying to put 4,000 packages of one kilogram of nails, cutting up wire rolls into 25 metres each and rolling it up and packaging it up is not an easy feat!

However, it’s not just a question of quantity and speed. Crucial to the equation is ensuring quality of the products we buy and balancing these two, often opposing, demands. When it comes to the dignity kits we give (which include clothing and underwear) I don’t just go out and buy any color sari or lungi. I visit the local market and bring a sample back and show it to the person who is going to distribute it out in the field (in this case a woman, because it’s designed for women) who crucially understand the needs and the cultural sensitivities and then can tell me; “no, don’t buy a red sari because red is the colour of celebration here and people are not in a celebratory mood at the moment.”

We have to keep in mind culture, ethnicities, sex, age and any number of factors when making what seems like simple decisions of buying items. Procurement is not an easy business, but when you see and hear how people have made use of the things you have managed to buy- it is all worth it.


Earthquake survivors receive relief material at Shankha Park, Kathmandu. © 2015 Prashanth Vishwanathan/CARE