Ebola, Halloween and Supply Chain Risks

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While there is no comparison to the human suffering and tragedy, the Ebola crisis does have some lessons to be learned from a Supply Chain Risk Management perspective.  We discussed some of them as they relate to the “Ebola response” Supply Chain here and here but there is also the risk associated with Supply Chains that are supported in West Africa – a prime example being Cocoa.

 If you have not noticed, your favorite chocolate bar is already more expensive and cocoa contracts are at a three year high.  According to Jack Scoville, the spike is largely related to Ebola fears.  While cocoa is largely grown in the Ivory Coast and Ghana and the Ebola epidemic is in the neighboring countries of Liberia and Guinea, the fear is  that it will spread to the cocoa fields. Even just the perception that it might, had that perception taken hold, would have been enough to start driving farmers away from their crops.  The way that risk was mitigated was by closing the borders to human traffic.

 The resulting risk created though was that the entire migrant labor for cocoa harvesting comes from Liberia and Guinea.  The impact of this is totally un-predictable as the harvesting season is currently underway.  While the hope is that labor will be available from other sources, the potential impact of this will be significant on the cocoa crop and therefore chocolate prices.  Which is probably why the futures contracts on cocoa are baking that risk into their pricing.  And  by the way, the agronomists and economists, who would be visiting the cocoa fields to project this year’s crop, yield, quality etc. to price out cocoa futures cannot do so as they have not been willing to travel because of Ebola fears.  The level of uncertainty surrounding cocoa is probably unprecedented.

Now place yourself in the shoes of your peers who are in the Chocolate industry or just substitute cocoa with your critical commodities, and Ebola with any significant major disruption (another Ebola like event, terrorist event, natural disaster, etc.) for your suppliers or their suppliers.  Does your Supply Chain Risk Management process incorporate such events and know what to do when they occur?  Or, does it ignore the existence of such risks?  Have you checked with your key suppliers and asked them to share their risk process with you so you know how much “pass through” risk you have.  What if 75% of your key suppliers are dependent on a small region in China or India – is that too much portfolio risk for you to assume? And this risk is prevalent whether we are discussing products or services.  What if the risk (Ebola) was able to contaminate your supply chain and cross borders as an intrinsic part of your supply chain?

For living proof of this, all you have to do is to look at McDonald’s (and KFC, Burger King etc.) and the impact it has had on them – and they are a vaunted Supply Chain organization.  Tainted meat from a Chinese supplier has had a significant impact on their sales, market share, brand, earnings, stock price etc. and  they all are still a long way from recovering from.

Halloween is coming and while no one is predicting any impact on demand because of any connections between Ebola and chocolate, high prices will definitely mean a lot less chocolate for the kids in their bags.  And that also means a lot less chocolate for me to steal from those bags the next morning.

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Dalip Raheja
Dalip Raheja is President and CEO of The Mpower Group (TMG). Dalip has over 30 years of experience managing large organizations and change initiatives. He has worked across the spectrums of supply chain management, strategic sourcing, and management consulting.
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