International development charity Transaid has gone back to its roots providing logistics support to  other aid organisations since Gary Forster took over as chief executive in 2011, as he explains to Steve Hobson.

While Transaid was set up as an independent body in 1998, its origins go further back, and its creation owes much to the vision of Princess Anne, HRH The Princess Royal, as former chief executive Chris Saunders explains: “The inspiration for Transaid can be squarely attributed to HRH The Princess Royal. When reviewing Save the Children’s relief operations in Ethiopia, The Princess realised that up to 25% of its budget was being spent on transport and that donated funds could be spent more effectively if development agencies had access to professional transport and distribution skills.   As patron of both Save The Children and the Chartered Institute of Transport, as it was then, she saw an opportunity to bring the two organisations together and challenged the industry to respond.

“Geoffrey Myers (then International President of the CIT) took up the challenge and the first Transaid was established within Save the Children (UK) as a voluntary group of transport industry individuals [in 1987].”

As well as providing the logistics expertise for other, often far larger, overseas aid and development organisations, Transaid has in recent years developed its own projects, often focused on improving the training of LGV drivers in Africa, where road deaths are the third biggest cause of preventable death after Aids and malaria and the average working life of truck drivers can be as low as five years. The importance of its driver training project in Tanzania was recognised last year with a contract from the World Bank to improve the safety of commercial freight traffic through East Africa’s Central Corridor.

“Transaid is currently involved in 17 projects, some of which the industry in the UK may not be aware of,” current chief executive Gary Forster says. “We often get funding to try out new models – such as using taxis as ambulances in Nigeria.”


While Forster has no intention of ending these standalone projects, he is keen to go back to the charity’s roots providing transport and logistics expertise to development and humanitarian organisations,  harnessing the expertise of UK operators to improve the effectiveness of other large scale programmes.

“My objective is to share our expertise with more partners like Oxfam and Save The Children,” says Forster. “We are brought in to provide niche expertise in logistics and we have made an enormous impact in big government and private healthcare programmes.”

These include the multi-million dollar campaign aimed at eradicating malaria from developing countries funded by donors including billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates. A key aspect to preventing malaria is the widespread availably of mosquito nets, and Transaid has provided expertise to facilitate the efficient distribution of 80m nets shipped to Africa in 8,000 40ft containers. “Our role is to advise on the logistics planning,” Forster says. “The actual work was outsourced to the Nigerian road transport sector on contracts we helped to develop.”

Another difference today compared with 15 years ago is that now Transaid always works with a local partner body such as the National Institute of Transport (NIT) in Tanzania, where Transaid is helping NIT raise standards of driver training.  “Every volunteer is requested by a local partner,” says Forster. “In Zambia [where Transaid partnered with the Industrial Training Centre Trust to raise standards of LGV driver training] there are now no full time Transaid staff. That programme is now self-sufficient as the aim was to train the trainers.”


Compared with the funding available from governments or the likes of Gates, Transaid’s income at £850,000 a year is modest. Forster wants to increase Transaid’s revenue to over £1m and by making effective use of in-kind donations of UK logistics professionals’ time and equipment Transaid is able to punch well above its weight.

“In the last 18 months we have grown globally and are now seen as the experts in transport and logistics,” says Forster. “We had 20 volunteers go overseas last year, and a lot of companies also give us equipment – but we still need cash too.”

A lot of Transaid’s revenue now comes from headline-grabbing challenges such as this year’s Cycle Uganda, London to Amsterdam cycle ride and Big Walk to a Small Pub. A big event like last year’s London to Paris cycle ride – a joint venture between the FTA, CILT, TFL and RHA - can raise well in excess of £100,000.

“This unrestricted funding is especially useful because we can spend it on what we think is important, such as driver training,” says Forster.

Like all charities, since the recession Transaid has had to work harder for its share of a smaller pot of donations from companies and individuals.

“Some companies see giving as just the right thing to do, others see it as marketing and others – like Norbert Dentressangle – also see it as an opportunity for staff development,” says Forster. “Many companies’ staff would probably choose to support more local causes – we are very fortunate to often work at the corporate level where companies can align their Corporate Social Responsibility to Transaid’s vision.

Just under half of Transaid’s revenue is raised in the UK through donations and fund raising, with the rest coming in payment from its sub-contract work for other organisations.

“When we work with other big organisations – if for example someone wants to us to help them plan logistics for some vaccines – we try to help out for free,” says Forster. “But if a big donor wants us to commit significant resources they will cover our costs.”


The difficulties of transport in developing countries means that just throwing large sums of money at a disease like malaria for example won’t deliver results unless logistics is built into the programme. “Buying vaccines is one thing but they still have to be moved around,” says Forster. “The need is massive and even with all that money it is quickly diluted when spread across Africa.”

Faced with the scale of the problems Transaid is trying to address, what stops Forster getting disillusioned with the role of charities in trying to change the world?

“We see the massive difference a small change can make,” he says. “In the last 15 years we have got to the point where we have expertise to share with hundreds of other charities, so our influence is multiplied exponentially.  We are practical people who can come in and get people and vaccines from A to B.

“There are big challenges but we are getting there. By starting at the grass roots we can help develop and change government policy. People are alive today because of what we have achieved so far.”

Volunteering a two way street

Several UK transport firms see huge benefits in sending staff on secondment to Transaid overseas projects. Norbert Dentressangle routinely sends its graduate management trainees on six-month secondments with Transaid, while Wincanton allowed its then business integration manager Caroline Barber to take almost two years off from her job to help launch the driver training programme in Zambia in 2008.

Barber’s life was so profoundly changed by the experience that she subsequently left Wincanton to work for Transaid full time. “Working for a large organisation like Wincanton means handing over parts of a project to another person after a few months, whereas working with Transaid gives more opportunities to get involved at all stages in its life cycle,” she told MT on her return from Zambia in 2010. “It is very rewarding to have that kind of ownership and it was a fantastic experience."

According to Forster, an overseas secondment benefits both the individual and their employer. “It opens the volunteer’s eyes,” he says. “They come back to work with a fresh pair of eyes. Caroline was a great example of applying private sector skills to one of our programmes and Wincanton were very generous in giving her to us.”