Dispatches From Nairobi: Pirates of the Supply Chain

With the procurement conference in Nairobi (see my previous dispatches from late March at the end of this post), an additional few days in town, and speaking with local Indian business men, students, people on the street, and fellow non-African business travelers, I got quite an education on one aspect of local supply chain management: dealing with security, especially pirates. This is a topic that I learned even more about than I had planned – and the takeaways are fascinating.

Even before stepping foot on the African continent, I had a hunch that security would be a topic of conversation. It’s a topic we all want to know more about. How bad is it? After all, it can’t be a coincidence that I ran into the following three security-focused individuals during my trip to and from Kenya:

Regarding the first, as I mentioned in my earlier dispatches, I spent time at Charles de Gaulle Airport with a retired US Lieutenant Colonel– now employed as a civilian contractor on his way to Uganda to assist in an advisory capacity. He said essentially that these days it's a lot more pleasant to be in Africa. Back in his active duty days he handled extractions of Americans and other nationalities out of trouble spots in the region.

The second was a retired British Air Force soldier, currently employed as part of a private protection team in charge of keeping vessels safe from pirates while navigating the Somali coasts. Always inquisitive, I had to get his view on what it is like to work in that business. As a civilian contractor, operating under British terms and Maritime Laws and conventions, his situation is unique compared with private security forces from other countries. Specifically, I was curious about the restrictions on their use of force in fending off potential pirates.  Here’s what he shared about their approach:

The “counter-buccaneer” security units patrol around the client vessel by maintaining a grid – comprising 4 boats containing 4 men in each, all armed with 7.62x51 NATO (.308) bolt-action rifles.

Yes, you read that correctly. Bolt-action rifles—fundamentally the same as WW1 issue equipment! Granted, they’re highly accurate, equipped with fine scopes, and are definitely capable of taking out bobbing and speeding targets on water at distances of 300 meters.

These weapons are considered “sufficient” for their needs, which is a bit ironic considering that pirates are typically armed with the quintessential third-world weapons of choice: Soviet-designed AK47 in 7.62x39 caliber and the RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher).  Thankfully for this contractor, the AK47 is largely ineffective at 300 meters. One would need substantial luck to hit anything at that distance, and the energy on impact would be low in comparison.

When I asked when they were clear to pull the trigger, I was informed that it is after a verbal “cease and desist” command and after monitoring whether there is “imminent mortal danger” – e.g. when the guy with the RPG stands up to take his shot, bolt-action rifle goes bang, and pirate goes down. Each shot fired has to be accounted for. So British, so civilized. How terribly rude of you to fire at us. Do stop! Too bad the enemy doesn’t play by the same rules.

To be continued. See also:

The African Procurement Journey - European Leg

Spend Matters Chairs Procurement Conference in Africa (Part 2)

Spend Matters Chairs Procurement Conference in Africa (Part 3)

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