Meet Carolyn Saidi: An Unstoppable Supply of Determination

Humanitarian Logistics is No Longer a Man’s World
It's Carol's job to get supplies where they're most needed, safely and on time. Here, Action Against Hunger staff unload a truck full of livesaving therapeutic foods for malnourished children. Photo: Action Against Hunger.

In the latest edition of our Humanitarians Against Hunger series, we profile Carol, Deputy Head of Action Against Hunger’s Logistics Center in Nairobi, Kenya. 

When Carolyn Saidi is not singing, dancing, or spending time with her family, she is in charge of a crucial area of Action Against Hunger’s humanitarian work that is often overlooked: procuring lifesaving relief supplies such as medicine, hygiene kits, and nutrition products and making sure they are safely and rapidly shipped to the communities and program locations where they are needed urgently. 

Failure is not an option in Carol’s line of work. Every minute counts when Action Against Hunger’s teams are depending on a reliable pipeline of supplies to treat malnourished children; repair and build wells to give communities safe water; or empower farmers to improve their access to food. Thousands of people depend on Carol’s ability to deliver. She and her team equip Action Against Hunger’s staff with the tools and supplies they need to fight hunger—and they know that a certain very hot place will freeze over before Carol will ever let them down.

Over Carol’s 15-year career with Action Against Hunger, she has seen the field of humanitarian logistics shift: it used to be dominated by men. Today, women are making their mark as leaders. Along her journey, she been responsible for many of the vital—but often less visible—jobs vital to managing complex humanitarian operations, including booking flights for program staff to travel within countries and outside of countries; operating efficient, reliable radio communications with remote field staff; overseeing the stocking, inventory, and overall management of supply warehouses in South Sudan and Kenya; and managing and upholding optimal procurement procedures. 

“Helping humanity is in me. I know I am part of the team that can achieve this objective,” Carol says. “I also like working for Action Against Hunger because of its values.”

Carol serves as Deputy Head of Action Against Hunger’s regional Logistics Center in Nairobi, Kenya – making sure that supplies for all our missions get to where they are needed, safely and on time. For the latest installment in our “Humanitarians Against Hunger” series spotlighting staff from around the world, check out the Q&A with Carol below to learn about what she does, what inspires her, and more.

What do you like best about your job? 

“I like working as a unit to bring the needed supplies and services to the communities we serve. I also like the fact that I train my fellow supply chain team and logisticians about Action Against Hunger’s procedures. Training members of our team gives me fulfilment.”

Which aspects do you like least about your job?

“Due to the unpredictable context and nature of humanitarian work, there is no way to know in advance what a particular mission or program will need. Hence, it is difficult to plan ahead as much as I would like. My top priority is to ensure that we deliver timely interventions and programs.”

What is one of your proudest professional moments?

In 2005, Action Against Hunger was almost shut down by the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) for allegedly operating the radio system without proper licenses. We had actually applied properly for the licenses and had been waiting for a response from the authorities. One day, CCK representatives came to the office with police officers to shut down our radio communications and demanded that the antennae be pulled down. 

Carol stood her ground and calmly informed the officers that Action Against Hunger had been trying to reach the CCK regarding licensing. She told them they could not pull the antennae down because the radio system was her only way to communicate with humanitarian staff working in remote field bases. 

Carol remembers telling the CCK, “If you want me to pull it down, I can ask the technician to come and pull it down. But if we lose one child [as a result of not being able to maintain our programs] – you will be liable because you forced us to cut communication with our bases.”

The group of men left and asked Carol speak to the board of directors of CCK the next day. Carol entered the boardroom and, with candor, despite the intimidating environment, told the men in charge about Action Against Hunger’s long wait for licensing:

“I singlehandedly represented the organization in the CCK Board and explained for how long and the reason for not having the licenses. This, to me, is a milestone because I saved the organization’s image and negotiated the fines that were imposed. We went from being threatened with a fine of five million Kenyan shillings to zero fines.”

Have you experienced a particularly challenging situation that tested you?

During her time with Action Against Hunger, Carol has had to test her ability to stay calm in high-pressure, dangerous circumstances. On one occasion, she was literally caught in the crossfire of a long-running civil conflict in the country that is now South Sudan. (South Sudan did not gain its independence from the Republic of Sudan until 2011.) 

Carol remembers, “In 2009, I was the acting Head of Base in Malakal, in what is now South Sudan. Conflict between armed groups broke out in the area. There was crossfire at our base.  I coordinated an evacuation. We lost nothing during the fight, despite looting that was on going in NGO compounds.” Despite being in danger herself, Carol organized the evacuation of Action Against Hunger staff from the area, and managed the temporary evacuation of the compound and base, without loss of or damage to Action Against Hunger’s property or offices. This is a strong example of grit, not to mention grace under pressure. Again, proof that Action Against Hunger can rely on Carol to not only deliver supplies to save lives, but also to manage procedures that help protect our aid workers in dangerous places.

What qualities and skills are required to succeed in the field of humanitarian logistics?

“Communication skills: Logisticians must always communicate clearly so others understand what they mean and, just as importantly, they must be able to truly listen to others. 

Team-building: Logisticians must be able to motivate and develop people to work effectively together to achieve the desired result, including effective communication, full participation, and maximum delegation with appropriate support and guidance.

Interpersonal skills: Always in high demand, important interpersonal skills and qualities include enthusiasm, energy, drive, analytic ability, calm demeanor, tenacity, adaptability, emotional intelligence, and resilience. 

Problem-solving skills: Logisticians should be able to analyze the hard facts and arrive at logical, workable solutions.

Decision-making skills: Logistics professionals need to make vital decisions with quick and effective appraisals of relevant data, empathy and judgement.”

What significant changes have you seen in the sector?

“There have been a lot of changes in the sector in the last fifteen years. Big ones include the use of technology in day-to-day operations, online procurement systems being put in place by different agencies, “paperless” work practices, and the international humanitarian coordination systems [such as the UN cluster approach] and improved collaboration among aid agencies that have enabled information sharing.”

What challenges and innovations do you see on the horizon for humanitarian logistics?

“The challenges in humanitarian logistics include the shortages of resources and infrastructure to address every emerging humanitarian need around the globe, along with the fact that a high degree of uncertainty and urgency are a constant factor in all of our response efforts. Another challenge is the presence of multiple agencies [delivering assistance] who often act with different objectives but expect the same results. 

Innovations that would help humanitarian logistics include process standardization to help facilitate regional cooperation. Efforts should also be invested in creating decentralized scales of smaller working groups with similar characteristics to add synergy to the work that we do. Partnerships with other agencies and international corporations can be encouraged to bring about flexibility, robustness, and agility to the supply chain.”


A member of Action Against Hunger's logistics team takes inventory of supplies in the field.
Photo: Action Against Hunger.

Logistics has traditionally been a male-dominated field. What is it like to be a woman working in this sector?

“I believe the sector still remains male-dominated because of stereotypes about the work rather than facts about the work. In my opinion, women have critical skills that are needed in logistics, like being able to read people, make decisions, multitask, and take initiative. There are ongoing, important improvements in the logistics sector and we have had a significant increase in women in the sector in the past few years, which is a good sign.”

What is one thing you want people to understand about humanitarian logistics?

“Being a humanitarian logistician is truly a calling. To do this job, you must be ready for deployment at all times, especially in emergencies, as most needs assessments require the expertise of a logistician and their 'eye' to assess critical needs such as infrastructure, security, and local markets.”