Ever wondered how your food gets from the farm to your fork? Or what impact Brexit and Covid-19 have had on European distribution networks?
Abena Awuku, a senior operations rep at a USA-headquartered freight company based in Amsterdam, shares her perspective on the logistics industry and her desire to bring her sector knowledge back home. Phina Dziso finds out more.
Why did you move to the Netherlands?
I moved to the Netherlands with my sister when I turned 18. My parents had divorced when I was a child and my mum relocated to the Netherlands when I was nine years old to live with her sister.
My dad was reluctant to let me and my sister go at the time, so we stayed back until he retired. I was just about to start my fourth year in senior high but decided to move anyway. I initially lived with my mum and my sister but moved out about three years ago. I’ve always lived in Amsterdam.
Did you have any preconceptions about the Dutch?
I knew about the racial stereotyping because my aunty in the Netherlands used to tell us that the police would stop and search mainly Black people. As a result, I was able to prepare. I had my own experience of racism when a man walked past me and mumbled ‘Zwarte’ (Zwarte Piet is a blacked-up character in Dutch folklore that is linked to Santa Claus).
Just by his pronunciation, I knew it had a racial undertone. But for the most part, it’s been smooth sailing. I feel like the Dutch can be quite inquisitive which is nice because neighbours will come and check up on you regardless of your race.
Are there similarities between the Ghanaian and Dutch cultures?
The Surinamese, who were colonised by the Dutch, share many things in common with us, such as food and language. They call garden eggs introba/ introwa and use similar leaves in okra soups as well. They have the same heat in their food, and when you listen to them speaking Creole, there are similarities to our Fante language.
Was fitting in difficult and how were you able to learn the language?
I felt a bit isolated when I moved to the Netherlands because I didn’t speak the language. I took language lessons for a year and could have continued perfecting the language, but it’s hard. So, I picked up Dutch through conversations around me. I am not very fluent but I can ride it out.
What did you study in the Netherlands?
I wanted to study anything related to international law but I could not find an institution in Amsterdam that offered that. I switched over to business at the Amsterdam School of International Business because that is what I studied in high school. I ended up studying international business and management for four years and that’s how I got introduced to the world of logistics.
Is that what you do now?
Yes, I work in logistics as a senior operations rep for a USA-headquartered freight company in Amsterdam and started off as a carrier sales rep three years ago. As a company, we don’t own fleets but we pick up and sell goods on behalf of our customers to other carriers - this is known as third-party logistics.
We also have a department that controls the entire customer supply chain which is known as fourth-party logistics. Fourth party refers to a process where a company gives up control of their supply chain to the logistics company. So, instead of just finding trucks for our customers to transport their goods, we manage their carriers, help them with forecasting, planning and provide tech solutions to improve efficiency.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I look at our clients’ forecasts every month and it’s my job to optimise transportation for them. I look at the quantities client need within a seven-day period to optimise and ensure they are not sending out multiple trucks unnecessarily.
That way you help the clients to save money, and deliver product more efficiently. One of our customers is a European bakery company that has production in UK and Europe so Brexit has made that job more challenging. We have other companies all over the world but the ones we deal with regularly are in The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Italy, France and the UK. Due to the pandemic, we have also been moving vaccines as well as foods.
What excites you about your job?
I like having that overview of how something runs, analysing what is not working and how it could work better. Improving processes so they work more efficiently brings me a sense of calm. Even though I cannot attain perfection, this job brings me that level of fulfilment.
What have you developed that has helped your work?
When I joined the team, I figured it was ridiculous handling such big volumes when we have so many manual processes to do. We have this initiative called ‘continuous improvement projects’ where everyone is supposed to come up with their own idea on how they can automate and improve business. I had to figure out my pain points in my daily operations – things that’s frustrated and made my work difficult.
I had to present my ideas to the team and managers, outlining why it was an issue, and how we collaborate as a team to resolve it. It was then my job to follow up, and see the projects through. I was promoted to senior operations rep because of this. We have built some bots and macros together, as a result, which have released so much time for us to do other stuff.
Even with movement picking up post lockdown and Brexit, having the bots and macros have eased work so much.
What skills have you acquired that could be useful in Ghana?
This job has given me a better perspective on how multilateral cooperation is important to everyone’s day-to-day living. Changes to trading rules between the UK and Europe due to Brexit have had an impact of the flow of goods to the public. We have experienced supply bottlenecks and that has meant supermarket shelves have reduced stock. If I can facilitate a company’s ability to operate more efficiently in distributing foods around an area from the skills that I have picked at work, then that is a good thing.
I have been thinking of operating a fourth party logistics organisation in Ghana and expanding that across West Africa. Growing up in Ghana, I remember watching the news with my dad and they would always be discussions on how getting produce to the market women was difficult because roads were bad.
And I know it is a question of implementing policies that would develop roads but if I were able to help farmers to better understand how to optimise the movement of goods, reduce costs and work with the system they have in the meantime, these would be relevant skills to start with.
What do you do in your spare time?
I started podcasting via The Goldcoast Report, which is a network of Ghanaian-based podcasters. It is in English but I am pushing for a podcast in the Ghanaian languages, which hopefully means I can rope in my sisters to do one in Fante.
Which places would you recommend to tourists in Amsterdam?
I would make Dam Square the first entry point as it takes you into China Town, and the Red Light District. If you’re keen on shopping, visit well-known shopping areas Kalverstraat and 9th Street. If you’re coming in the summer, I recommend Blijburg – it’s a really nice quiet beach up north and Amsterdam Lookout – a tall buildings with a swing located at the top of the Amsterdam Tower that showcases panoramic views of the city.
Click here to read about more stories from Ghanaians abroad. And if you are a Ghanaian living in the diaspora or know someone who is, fill in our mini questionnaire and you could be featured in our next post.