Sarah Hylden in a warehouse

Q&A With Sarah Hylden, East Africa Logistics Director

One Acre Fund East Africa logistics director reflects on the past year and what’s in store for 2016 and beyond.

Meet Sarah Hylden

As 2015 comes to a close, we have been reflecting on what has been our biggest year to-date. As an organization, 2015 has meant delivering more life-changing products to more smallholder farmers than ever before. To get some thoughts on what that feels like for our staff, we asked to sit down with One Acre Fund’s East Africa logistics director, Sarah Hylden, to reflect on this past year and what’s in store for 2016 and beyond.

Sarah Hylden Portrait

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from and how did you end up living in East Africa?

The story of how I landed in East Africa is a little “non-linear.” I think the true start of it occurred while I was busy studying democratization in the former Soviet Union. It continued through the Mississippi Delta, where I spent time teaching middle-school students about “Bongo Flava” (Tanzanian rap), and now here I am answering this question in Tanzania!

It was about eight years ago that my now-husband David (and One Acre Fund Tanzania country director) convinced me that I ought to try auditing a Swahili class. It took a few years to turn into a job at One Acre Fund, but I think that was the root of my story.

How long have you been in your current role at One Acre Fund and what's your favorite part of the job?

I’ve been working as the East Africa Logistics Director for almost exactly one year, though I’ve been involved with input distributions since I started at One Acre Fund.

There’s a lot to love about this position. First and foremost, distribution is at the core of our operating model. There’s nothing quite like watching the hundreds of moving pieces of an input distribution come together on delivery day – after months of preparation, you’re often greeted with song and dance and celebration; volunteers jump to unload a ten-ton truck by hand; and groups organize to pick up the goods that will eventually feed their families, send their children to school, generate a little extra income to improve their homes – it’s just intensely motivating to be in a position where you can literally see your hard work come to fruition.

Sarah Hylden Warehouse 2 Sarah in a One Acre Fund inputs warehouse.

What does your team do that makes you feel proudest?

We deliver high-quality inputs on time to our farmers every year and we keep our transport and delivery costs at a level that’s downright mind-blowing. Just when farm families are experiencing the greatest financial risks, we provide consistent and professional service.  On the logistics team, we often talk about this work in terms of kilograms, and so we really get to feel the weight of the impact that all of the teams at One Acre Fund help to deliver. It’s incredibly gratifying.

You oversee the logistics for all of our countries of operations, which is a lot of work! What's the hardest part of the job?

It’s really important to keep a balanced perspective when working across countries. We strive to build consistent and standard practices where possible, but our operations in Rwanda are different than they are in Kenya than they are in Burundi or Tanzania. It’s really critical to bear those contextual and programmatic differences in mind when we design our policies and procedures, and that can present an interesting set of challenges.

2015 was our biggest year of operations to-date. What can you tell me about the numbers? 

Our calendar is a little bit funky because we name our deliveries based on when the harvest will happen. So, we start delivering inputs for 2015 in August of 2014. But if we just think about the calendar year, in 2015, we delivered somewhere on the order of 33 million pounds of goods. For perspective, that’s about 2,750 male African elephants or about 80 blue whales worth of farm inputs. It’s a bit of an inside joke on the logistics team, but we do sometimes talk in terms of how many whales we’ve moved during a particular delivery!

When you reflect back on this year, what do you think was our biggest logistics challenge? 

Our biggest challenge is definitely around staffing. We support an enormous core program team and also all of our innovations teams. While we try to stay lean and efficient, we definitely have a big need for more leaders on our team. If you’re reading this and are interested, I definitely encourage you to check out our open logistics roles!

Was there ever a point during the year when you were doing something you never would have imagined yourself doing 5 years ago?

This might sound a little morbid, so prepare yourself accordingly.  Earlier this year, I spent a bit of time working with our product innovations team discussing the logistics around delivering live, improved breeds of chicks. Chickens are a great investment opportunity for farmers since their eggs and meat can be sold (or consumed for more nutritional variety).  But, as you can imagine, delivering thousands of chicks has its hazards, so we had to plan for the possibility that some of the chicks might die in transit from the hatchery to our program sites.  I went back and forth with the innovations associate about how each box of chicks (four hens and one rooster) could be quality checked at the site and, in the event of a death, how the appropriate gender of chick could be hot-swapped in from the buffer stock of chicks in the truck. We had to figure out if the chicks could be easily identified by gender, how to put in additional preventative measures to protect the chicks, and what to do with any extra chicks – they certainly couldn’t go onto a shelf in the warehouse! That was definitely a weird moment when I thought “my college education did not prepare me for this!”

Sarah Hylden Outside A Warehouse

Working in logistics, what are the “unwritten rules” that help everything run smoothly?

Definitely. From where I sit, the three things that matter the most to running a smooth operation are People, Planning, and Perspective.

Investing in your people early on—from trainings to team morale, makes an enormous difference in the midst of a delivery. There are also just thousands of little details to get right during a delivery operation like ours, so we also have to make sure that we’ve planned out everything, including contingencies for when things inevitably go awry.

And that brings me to the last piece: keeping perspective. Distribution is a feat of coordination among really uncertain circumstances: trucks break down, rains interrupt our deliveries, key leaders can have personal emergencies, so it’s really critical to keep the big picture in mind: end-of-the-day, we want farmers to get their inputs. If that’s happening, then there’s no cause to lose your head, which can be easy to do when so much is going on at once. 

You travel a lot for your role. What's the thing you miss the most when you're away from Iringa? What's the thing you most look forward to doing when you get home?

Pickles! I suppose the obvious answer would be my husband, but if we’re being honest, it’s Pickles, my little dog.  Pickles is a shelter dog from Nairobi who we adopted about four and a half years ago. He’s known for being a bit of a weirdo with a sweet but nervous temperament.

Looking to 2016, our numbers just keep growing, which is great! But I imagine it also seems daunting. As we scale, how does our logistics team plan to keep up?

That’s the million dollar question! To me, one of the most exciting parts of our department is building systems that can support growth.  While we’ll always have to keep building our warehousing and transport networks to meet the scale demands of our field teams, a lot of our work is about remaining lean and effective as we grow and expand.  For now, we’re focused on process development, policy management, and recruiting.  Our number one resource is our people and developing a strong team is critical.

What kind of staff are you looking for? Who should join your team?

We definitely need more hands on deck! We’re looking for people who have a passion for solving complex problems both theoretically and practically. While the logistics team is stocked with, as we affectionately call ourselves “data nerds,” we also have to operate in a real and changing environment. That means any solutions we come up with have to be intensely practical. We’re looking for people with some experience in supply chains but who are flexible thinkers and creative problem solvers. If that sounds like you, please check out our jobs page!

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