“So, launching Wheel powder, is really sweating blood,” opined Dr. Ashok Ganguly, the Chairman of Hindustan Lever in 1989, as we worked through the tiny lanes of Dharavi. We had spent the entire day, working 35 shops in this crowded slum of Mumbai, to study how a new low-cost powder was faring. He had reviewed how the sales team was selling the powder. Our field force merchandised the powder-packs on the grocery shelves. Then, they ensured painting the walls with the green brand colours. Finally, they affixed posters on the doors of the shops. It was back-breaking labour, shop by shop.
The Distribution Challenge
As India begins launching the COVID-19 vaccines, I reflected on the sagacity of Dr. Ganguly’s words, 31 years ago. Before a product, like a soup or a cooking oil, is launched in the market, it takes 12 to 30 months to conceive, plan and produce it. However, after the product is ready, it takes consumer goods companies just four to six weeks, to place it in about six to eight million supermarkets, wholesalers and small groceries (kirana shops), in India.
The introduction of the COVID-19 vaccines in India, will be the biggest launch of any product, in one of the largest countries globally. Around one billion people across India have to be inoculated. So, the vaccines have to be packed appropriately, transported, delivered and stored in the towns and villages.
Government & Private Partnerships
Countries like Russia, UK, USA and Brazil are struggling to get the vaccines to their people expeditiously. The distribution of vaccines cannot be undertaken in a bureaucratic manner. We need some original, out-of-the box solutions. The rollout of the vaccines in various towns, presents an excellent opportunity to the retail trade, to contribute to the marathon task of vaccinating millions of citizens. The entire supply chain in retail, comprising of shopping malls, wholesalers, retailers and the corporations manufacturing daily-use groceries can contribute to this endeavour. Governments should work closely with the private sector.
Organised retailers like shopping malls and centres, have ample spaces in the restaurant and play areas. There areas can be used for setting up inoculation centres by health authorities. Due to the free space, it will be possible to maintain social distancing, while waiting for the jabs. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine does not involve any waiting after the jab. So, customers who take the vaccine, can continue shopping after the jab. Participating in the vaccination drive, will also generate community goodwill for the malls.
The supermarkets, wholesalers, small retailers and pharmacies in India rendered laudable service during the entire lockdown period, commencing from March 2020. They ensured that essentials like food grains, milk, dairy products, medicines were available to the people of the country. Hardly any Indian family went without food or medicines in all 7,935 towns and 6,49,481 villages. The wholesalers and retailers of India have served the country in an exemplary manner during the pandemic. Now, they can do more by enabling the vaccine dissemination.
In large markets like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Raipur, Kolhapur, Ludhiana, Kochi, etc., hundreds of retailers visit large wholesalers to buy their goods every day. These large wholesalers have waiting rooms, meeting areas, etc. Health authorities can use these areas to set up temporary vaccination centres. The advantage is that all visiting retailers and traders, could be inoculated expeditiously. Johnson & Johnson are working on a vaccine which will comprise of one jab only. If this gets approved, then the wholesale trade can also contribute to the vaccination drive. Health departments can establish vaccination centres, in their premises. All visiting retailers and shopkeepers could get inoculated, with just one jab. The vaccination drive could even be sponsored by some companies.
India needs to establish optimum delivery mechanisms to distribute the vaccine, even in villages with a population of less than 500. About 65.53 percent of the Indian population lives in the rural areas. The wholesalers in semi-rural markets, who feed rural retailers, can be deployed to ensure vaccination in the rural areas.
The bulk of the sales of foods and groceries, take place through the all-pervasive grocers or small traditional stores in India. The corner shop groceries, have a personal rapport with their customers. They even extend credit to their loyal customers. These retailers can be deployed to disseminate information about the nearest vaccination centres. The shopkeepers could display posters furnishing the information or even through word of mouth. This channel would be very productive in the villages.
Grass Root Communications
Communication media like radio and TV should be deployed to convince people to get vaccinated. A professional educational campaign is necessary. Organised retailers, shopping malls and consumer product companies can cooperate with the government to construct publicity campaigns, which spur people to take the vaccines quickly. Moreover, wholesalers and retailers in small towns, are well versed in grass-root marketing like wall paintings, posters, etc. So, even small grocers could be roped in to spread the vaccine message, through wall-paintings and local promotional activities.
Retail Product Companies
Large retail-oriented consumer product companies have contributed significantly during the pandemic, by distributing masks, sanitisers and products free in many markets. These companies like Unilever, Nestlé, Colgate, Procter & Gamble, Pepsi and Coke sell their products to shopkeepers. Their products can reach any shop in any village or town, anywhere in the world. They understand logistics and distribution. These companies know the geography of countries, road and street streets networks, logistics, better than some local Governments. They use Geographical Information Systems, to track every change in roads or shops, even in remote villages. They can guide Health workers and inoculators to clusters of villages and people.
Logistics & Warehouses
Many companies maintain warehouses in remote locations, where stocks are stored for onward despatches to small towns and villages. Health authorities can use the warehouses of such marketing and retail companies like Amul, to stock the vaccines, for onward despatches. Some of these companies also have robust cold chains reaching remote villages. Their network of warehouses, cold storages, distributors, can be deployed to transport and store the vaccines.
Robust, Real-time IT Systems
These companies also have digital Distributor Management Systems. These are IT systems which link the company warehouses with thousands of their distributors. Any change in inventory, is tracked every minute. This helps to monitor stocks and replenish them immediately, through automatic reordering systems. So, if the vaccines are stored with the distributors of consumer product companies, their deployment and inventories can be reviewed constantly.
Vaccine Dissemination Committee
Every state government should have a committee of experts to guide the dissemination of vaccines. At least two or three members of this expert Vaccine Distribution Committee should be CEOs or Distribution and Logistics Directors of companies like Pepsi, Unilever, Amazon, Amul or Colgate. They will bring granular and microscopic knowledge with them about distribution, logistics by town, district and village.
Every segment of society should contribute to the vaccination drive. The faster India gets vaccinated, the more rapidly we can return to some normal days. Perhaps, happy days. Again.