Heads Up! Vegetable Oil Falls From The Sky In South Sudan

The villagers in Ganyiel, a small village surrounded by swampland in southern Unity State of South Sudan, have become accustomed to seeing planes airdrop bags of cereal and pulses but seeing vegetable oil falling from the sky was something new. This happened in May when the World Food Programme (WFP) carried out its first successful airdrop of vegetable oil.

Innovative Approach To Delivery

Word had spread around the village that WFP would be trying to drop vegetable oil from the air. As the Ilyshin-76 cargo plane approached the village many people rushed out to see for themselves. There was excitement and cheers as the hatch of the plane opened releasing small orange parachutes attached to blue boxes.

Vegetable oil (fortified with vitamin A and D) is a key item that WFP provides to people it serves across the world, including in South Sudan. Normally, the agency moves this commodity by road or river to various parts of the country but when insecurity and poor roads hamper movement via land WFP resorts to moving this commodity by air.

Each month WFP has to move an average 300 metric tons of vegetable oil through helicopter airlifts into hard to reach areas, particularly in the states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile which have been most affected by the conflict that has been raging in the country since December 2013.

Cost Savings With Airdrops

“Airlifts have worked well, but the quantity of oil we move by helicopters is quite small when you look at the scale of the need,” said Peter Schaller, WFP Chief of Logistics in South Sudan. “We could vastly improve our efficiency and save a lot of money with the delivery of oil through airdrops.”

In a bid to cut the use of helicopters for air delivery of vegetable oil by 50 percent, saving the operation a potential US$14 million per year, the WFP logistics teams began working with the US-based company SkyLife in late 2014 to develop a system to airdrop the vegetable oil out of a plane flying 200 metres above the ground.

Airdropping vegetable oil (fortified with vitamin A and D) in South Sudan

First Ever Delivery Attempt Is Successful

The system that was tested in Ganyiel involved two or three tins or plastic containers of oil wrapped in a bag and placed in a box with padding. Twenty-eight boxes were stacked on top of a palette in the aircraft and when the hatch of the plane opened all the boxes left at once and a 60-inch parachute opened for each box. The parachute ensures the boxes land safely on the ground with minimum damage.

“It was the first time we were delivering oil by parachutes and everyone was very nervous, but I must say it has been quite some success,” said Adham Effendi, WFP Logistics Officer who supervised the test of the innovative system. “We still need to improve the system to ensure minimal losses and operational efficiency, but I am hopeful that in the next few months, we will be doing several airdrops of oil.”

South Sudan logistics team inspecting airdropped vegetable oil.

Facing Challenges In Hard To Reach Areas

South Sudan is one of the most challenging places where WFP works and movement of commodities by road or river are often hampered by poor infrastructure or insecurity. Therefore, it is vital that WFP finds innovative methods of delivery that match the cost and efficiency of more traditional methods.

Last year, WFP logistics teams in the country successfully trialled the airdrop of Super Cereal Plus – a specialised nutritious food used to prevent and treat malnutrition in children. This has since become a viable option for delivering this critical commodity in hard to reach areas where insecurity and limited infrastructure stalls movement by road or river transport.