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By Tim Russell

I recently started working with the World Food Programme (WFP) in Khartoum, Sudan. The project we are collaborating on is designed to build a predictive model that can be used to assist with voucher programming as WFP considers expanding the percentage of food assistance fulfilled with vouchers. The plan is for me to split time between Khartoum and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where I’m currently living with my family.

In December I was able to spend three weeks with WFP in Sudan. I experienced normal “working a new country” issues such as how to get around without a car, should I flag down that rickshaw, inability to speak the language, and gaining access to local currency while facing US economic sanctions and high inflation.

The sanctions render credit cards useless and force you to carry cash into the country. In the three weeks I was first there, the unofficial exchange rate dropped  by 10%. I quickly learned to exchange small amounts to reduce losses.

After a few starts and stops, security cleared a trip for me to visit the North Darfur office in El Fasher. I was cleared to stay in the guesthouse, visit the office, and go to a camp in the city limits. This trip was the best part of my visit to Sudan.  I was able to talk to people redeeming vouchers and traders providing critical food commodities. It felt as if the traders enjoyed explaining how their operations worked. I was also able to spend time with fantastic WFP staff that built and maintained the successful voucher program in El Fasher Рprofessionals through and through. To top it all off, the cook at the guesthouse in El Fasher is known as the best in WFP and put the restaurants near my hotel in Khartoum to shame. We even had fresh baked cookies.

Things I learned during this trip to Sudan…

1) I am a distraction, no matter how much I try not to be. In the past, while working on network optimization at Pepsi, I had to make time for consultants in my schedule. Now I am the one asking others to put aside their work to help me do mine.

2) WFP has supply chain thinking in its DNA. It was refreshing to ask questions about transportation and warehousing and not have people blankly stare back at you. Everyone from human resources to drivers understand the importance of a supply chain frame of mind.

3) It gets COLD in Darfur at night – extra blankets and a room heater kind of cold.

4) Khartoum is very friendly, and no one I spoke to held me, as a US citizen, personally responsible for US sanctions.

5) Darfur is beautiful. It is a desert but with wild cereals growing after the rains and black rocky hills.

6) I was struck by how long people have been living in the camps outside El Fasher and how permanent they looked. To my untrained eye, they appeared as a suburb of the city. Houses made of mud brick are surrounded by well-established hospitals, thriving schools with kids running all around, and active markets inside the camp.

I will be heading back to Sudan soon to continue the research project. Next we will focus on data gathering. I hope get out of Khartoum and see more of Sudan, specifically the growing regions around Gedarif. I also am looking forward to talking to more people involved in the food value chain. Those conversations have been my favorite part of the work to date. Everyone has been excited to share his or her expertise.

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