How a private-public partnership is training supply chain professionals in the global south

‘Soft skills’, from motivating a team to tapping into networks, provide the vital oil that keeps supply chains moving smoothly. A programme called STEP is bringing together businesses and the public sector to help healthcare managers in the global south get the leadership training they need.

  • 26 January 2022
  • 6 min read
  • by Angela Wipperman
© UNICEF/UN0426109/Kanobana
© UNICEF/UN0426109/Kanobana


While financial support for non-profit initiatives is always welcome, the private sector has something else to contribute that can be just as valuable: personnel and experience. By harnessing the insights of people within the private sector, the public sector can do even more to effectively support the communities in which they work.

As the world grows ever more connected, the bonds forged in initiatives like STEP could help us achieve greater equity in global health.

This is exactly the thinking behind Gavi’s Strategic Training for Executives Programme, or STEP for short, which is now entering its sixth year and second iteration. STEP came about in 2014/15 as UPS, a global transport company, was looking for a way to do more than ‘financial philanthropy’.

As a leading supply chain expert, what could UPS do with its wealth of knowledge, and its most valuable resource: people? The company reached out to Gavi, who at the same time happened to be looking at ways to help improve supply chains in the global south. Vaccines were arriving in supported countries, but were sometimes wasted as the infrastructure and expertise just weren’t in place to get the shots from the point of delivery to the people in need. 

Kevin Etter, a specialist in public-private collaboration who worked at UPS at the time, sat down with Gavi to talk about how a partnership might be the answer to both challenges. The result was STEP, a pilot training programme for workers in Gavi-supported regions who would learn directly from seasoned experts on how to manage efficient supply chains.

In 2015, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers (IFPW) joined the partnership to help scale up the programme and engage the global pharmaceutical sector as coaches and facilitators to public health managers through IFPW Foundation. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) provided the catalytic funding to the IFPW Foundation-Gavi partnership in support of STEP.

‘Success lies in my people’

The programme is designed to help immunisation supply chain managers in countries supported by Gavi to learn new skills and provide more effective local health services through supply chain leadership.

The courses within the programme are similar to an MBA, with pre-course online learning, followed by face-to-face training, and a longer period of coaching alongside a real-world project. The course covers soft skills like how to build a successful team, how to execute a plan, and project management. To date, STEP has trained more than 350 delegates representing 24 countries, via 14 courses.

These delegates are in positions that can have immediate, broad impact. For example, in 2019, the pharmaceutical company Merck, also an IFPW member, sent a group of senior directors and executives to Benin to act as STEP coaches. Their delegates were health workers and supply chain professionals including doctors, the regional Ministry of Health Lead, and the Technical Advisor to the Minister of Health – key positions able to directly influence vital regional supply chains in health. 

Delegates have responded positively, reporting that the training has been highly relevant, and helped them improve in their roles. Martha G. Ajulong, Principal Pharmacist for the Ministry of Health, Uganda told project organisers:

“STEP showed me that the key to success lies in my people and how I motivate them. The results that we are now seeing make me confident in my ability to do so. With the knowledge that I have gained from STEP, I am in the process of introducing collaborative approaches to learning in 20 hospitals in Uganda.”

Delegates have gone on to implement a range of initiatives using newly acquired leadership skills. From introducing management information systems across several countries, to creating pharmaceutical stock monitoring systems and quality monitoring processes, the skills of communication, team motivation and networking have been applied to real world supply chain challenges.

Coaching for efficiency

Underpinning the programme – whether it’s in-person or virtual – is the role of the private sector. Private sector experts are integral to both developing the course and the materials, and in the direct role of coach. As volunteer coaches, seasoned professionals bring their real-world know-how to the scheme, providing delegates with the opportunity to learn from those who’ve been there and done the work, not just from textbooks. 

As Kevin Etter, who now works on the project as a consultant, says: “The private sector coaches are there to bring in that ethos, the attitude that focuses on efficiencies and on financial management.” 

This gets to the heart of why private-public partnerships like STEP are so valuable for everyone involved. Public sector organisations, and the people they support, gain insight and expertise from private enterprises, learning from the best in businesses that value efficiency.

Businesses in turn are given the opportunity to learn from the experiences of delegates, and to give back to the communities that use their services. Those coming from the private sector gain insight from seeing first-hand the challenges supply chains face in developing nations and understanding the powerful role they can play in effecting change.

Chris Goetz, Executive VP and General Manager at IFPW, puts it this way: “Pharmaceutical manufacturers want products to reach patients around the world as safely and effectively as possible. Most people in this business got into the field to help people and patients, and so to extend their reach beyond purely commercial activities is really appealing.”

The pandemic’s pause button

When COVID-19 emerged in 2020 and travel was shut down, STEP pivoted. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had joined Gavi as partners to offer the programme, which is now coordinated through People That Deliver, an alliance of public and private sector organisations dedicated to improving global supply chains. The global lockdown meant in-person teaching was no longer possible, but the break did provide an opportunity for the newly formed partnership to do two things.

One was to take some time to review the programme, and redevelop and improve it after its first few years. A more recent iteration, STEP 2.0, has updated the course material and brought in private sector experts not as mentors, but as coaches who can engage more closely with the participants. Johnson & Johnson, also an IFPW member, used its experience in online training and contributed significant time and talent to help make this effort a success.

The second action taken during the pandemic was to create a virtual version of the programme, vSTEP. This is now halfway through its first run and, if successful, could provide a new avenue to reach more delegates alongside the face-to-face courses.  GSK also funded the virtual adaptation and the delivery of vSTEP under a new outsourced model that is being implemented in Zambia by Yale University.

Going global

Gavi, along with its public and private partners, is committed to continuing STEP for a further five years, as STEP 2.0 and vSTEP. The programme has almost exclusively been conducted in centres across Africa to date, so a future hope is to roll the programme out across more regions, including Latin America and Southeast Asia.

What is certain is that the value of private and public partnerships has been clearly demonstrated, and as the world grows ever more connected, the bonds forged in initiatives like STEP could help us achieve greater equity in global health.