Story by Martin Karimi
Vincent Ndeke was born in Kenya’s Kitui County east of Nairobi. The 48-year-old father of four works for the World Food Programme (WFP) overseeing shipping at the Port of Mombasa which is one of the largest port operations in the region.
Vincent’s job is complex and requires precision. It involves coordinating and tracking the movement of vessels from source ports to Mombasa and ensuring that every piece of paperwork is ready and lodged with relevant authorities for timely entry and the smooth clearance of cargo.
Vincent and his team are a cog in the wheel that allows WFP to move about 200,000 metric tons of food annually through the port of Mombasa quickly and efficiently to locations in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan or even Ethiopia.
An early encounter with WFP
Vincent encountered WFP very early in his life. He did not know then that he would end up joining the 19,000-strong force of women and men spreading hope around the globe.
As Vincent grew up in rural Kitui, WFP was setting up what would later become one of its hallmark interventions in Kenya; the School Meals Programme.
At the age of nine, Vincent became one of the pioneer beneficiaries of school meals, a crucial safety net in the arid and semi-arid areas.
“I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for WFP. We were given nutritious meals in school which was good for us because some pupils had no food at home,” said Vincent, “I got a good education because of WFP,” he said.
A dream of farming is overtaken by a desire to help others
Vincent, the second born in a family of nine, never wanted a life of employment.
“I wanted to start my own business in horticulture — farming vegetables for sale,” he said.
But to start, he needed some capital. So, he took a job as a warehouse clerk with an NGO partner contracted to manage the port operations for WFP.
Eight months later, WFP made the decision to directly run the operations by coordinating the shipping, receiving food from vessels, managing warehousing and dispatching commodities to their final inland destinations.
On 10 December 1993, on his 21st birthday, Vincent Ndeke became the first locally employed WFP staff member in Mombasa. He could not have wished for a better birthday gift. By this time, the dream of becoming a farmer was long gone and instead a firm conviction that he was meant to work in shipping and supporting humanitarian work.
Growing in the WFP family
As a Port and Warehouse Clerk, Vincent supervised the loading of trucks at the port from arriving vessels, checked the conditions of the partner-managed warehouses and oversaw the loading of outbound trucks.
“My first assignment was to oversee the discharge and dispatches and to issue waybills for beans off the very first charter vessel to arrive after WFP took over the operations,” he said.
“I knew that the work that I was doing was having a huge impact on millions of people, and that was very satisfying,” he said.
Vincent later worked as a filing clerk doing a lot more paperwork than physically overseeing the movement of bags and containers of food. In 2005, he took over a supervisory position in the then Logistics Department. This unit has since evolved and is now the Shipping Unit which Vincent manages and supervises three other colleagues.
“Shipping is a critical part of the Supply Chain arm of WFP. Without it, food will not reach those that need it most in a timely manner,” said Vincent. “Therefore, we are crucial in WFP’s role and in saving lives and changing lives,” he said.
A proud moment in a tumultuous year
2020 brought its fair share of challenges and for the shipping industry, the coronavirus pandemic was and remains a potentially crippling threat. However, for the people that rely on WFP’s food, a disruption to the Mombasa port operations would be a death sentence. The port is a lifeline for millions of people in the region, most of them refugees or displaced families with no other source of food apart from WFP.
“We have quickly adopted the use of technology to keep our operations running efficiently,” said Vincent. “For instance, the use of a forklift to stack commodities in the warehouse and spreader bars to discharge cargo in jumbo bags. As a result, we now have fewer people in the warehouses at any given time and this means that we can operate safely and efficiently even with the pandemic raging,” he said.
But the challenges of 2020 will not dampen Vincent’s mood. And certainly not after the amazing news that broke on October 9, 2020.
“WFP Mombasa is very delighted to be part of the incredible honour of being named the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Laurette,” says Vincent. “It is [partly] because of the contributions that we have made in our Supply Chain operations here in Mombasa.”
Vincent has no regrets that he found his way into this line of work.
“Joining WFP has given me a great opportunity to serve the needy and most vulnerable people. This gives me a lot of satisfaction and energy to cheerfully discharge my duties,” said Vincent, “I have served WFP in Mombasa since day 1 — for the last 28 years — and I’m a very proud member of this team,” he said.
Mombasa, the ‘Port of Choice’
WFP’s port operations have evolved from a small office that delegated most responsibilities to appointed forwarding agents, to a fully staffed entity with expertise in shipping, warehousing, and freight and forwarding, 28 years later, and growing.
WFP Mombasa has over 40 staff members running the port operations. One of the goals is to continually increase operational efficiencies whether in documentation and tracking of cargo or the actual physical discharge or stacking of commodities.
As a trusted importer, WFP has earned certification that allows its shipments to get preferential treatment at the customs. This results in quicker clearance and in turn timely delivery of food to hungry populations.