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Bringing aid by air to the Horn of Africa

Geoffrey Mwangi is the Somalia Coordinator of the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) and also the supervisor to all airlifts destined for, and leaving from, Kenya and Somalia.

A Kenyan national who started his career with WFP working at Lokichoggio airbase in 1999, Geoffrey has over a decade of aviation experience that has prepared him for his current role.

Yet he admits coordinating these airlifts is in some ways more complex than others he’s done in the past. The security situation has proved to be the biggest hindrance on operations in southern Somalia, but finding and chartering the proper aircraft is also a challenge. 

“Very few aircraft can land on a dirt airstrip that is 800 meters long. Fortunately we have locally contracted more compact planes, a Buffalo DHC-5 for example, which we use to deliver food aid to smaller locations like Dollow and Elberde in Somalia, and Liboi and Elwak, which are along the Kenyan border with Somalia,” says Geoffrey.

Most international airlifts performed by WFP are organized through Headquarters, located in Rome, while airlifts taking place within the Horn of Africa are coordinated locally. By working closely with the Programme and Logistics teams, Geoffrey and his Aviation colleagues must go through a long list of clearances and permits from government authorities, handling contractors, charter companies and Headquarters; they must also stay in close contact with their colleagues on the ground to ensure that flights leave on-time and that they constantly have up-to-date information on departure/arrival times, and quantities and types of cargo on board to report back to local logistics colleagues and Headquarters. With all the moving parts of this operation, urgent coordination among all involved very much depends on each team member’s collaboration, regardless of the hour.

He also explained the reason why it’s more challenging to airlift food into small villages in Somalia and Kenya rather than receiving cargo at a large airport like Nairobi, where most food arrives.

“Most of the time a WFP staff member is there waiting to receive the food upon the plane’s arrival, but sometimes in very small and remote areas it’s not always possible. In this case, we make agreements with cooperating partners who will be responsible for receiving, loading and transporting the cargo,” explains Geoffrey.

Not only may the aviation team encounter these types of difficulties in this operation, but they also have to rebuild their roster of reliable airstrips. In January 2010 when WFP was forced to suspend operations in much of the southern region of Somalia, that meant they would loose access to and track of the functioning airstrips – leaving behind only dusty areas, overgrown with shrubs. Now Geoffrey, his colleagues and the security team must perform assessment missions to check these landing areas from the air.  With many of these airstrips located in areas with highly limited access, Geoffrey admits in this operation it’s difficult to plan for the long-term, as well as the short. 

In addition to coordinating WFP chartered flights, he will also organize the local airlifting of cargo received via donated flights from private sector partners TNT and UPS carrying Plumpy’ Sup to Nairobi.

*The above 2 photos were taken at Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya. WFP/Rebecca Richards