The influence of information and communication technologies on disaster relief operations: a case of Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe

Felix Chari (Department of Public Administration and Management, Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha, South Africa)
Cawe Novukela (Faculty of Business Sciences, Walter Sisulu University, East London, South Africa)

Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management

ISSN: 2042-6747

Article publication date: 13 June 2023

Issue publication date: 16 November 2023




There has been an avalanche of global natural disasters in recent times. In recent years approximately 210 million people were affected, an estimated economic cost of US$153bn was incurred and 68,000 deaths were recorded. This was a work up call that made it imperative for humanitarian actors to impetuously adopt information and communication technologies (ICTs) to timeously assist affected populations in disaster prevention, mitigation response and recovery However, the use of ICTs in the humanitarian field is still at its infancy in most third world countries. The purpose of this study was, therefore, to evaluate the utilization of ICTs in humanitarian relief operations associated with Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe.


Using a pragmatic approach, the study gathered data using semistructured questionnaires that were triangulated with interviews of humanitarian staff that were involved in Cyclone Idai relief efforts.


An observed suboptimal utilization of ICTs was further disadvantaged by the inequitable distribution of communication infrastructure. However, despite the suboptimal usage, there was a significant positive influence of ICT adoption on effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility in humanitarian relief operations.


Optimal use of ICTs has the potential to revolutionize humanitarian supply chain management. A smooth transition to new technologies is recommended in which personnel are given professional development opportunities on a regular basis.



Chari, F. and Novukela, C. (2023), "The influence of information and communication technologies on disaster relief operations: a case of Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe", Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management, Vol. 13 No. 4, pp. 399-409.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023, Felix Chari and Cawe Novukela.


Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial & non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at

1. Introduction

The frequency of natural disasters and their negative consequences in terms of numbers of people killed, property destroyed and negative environmental impacts pose an array of challenges the world over. Recent research finding point to that natural disasters account for nearly 80% of the disasters that rock the world (United Nations, 2010). In recent years, the world has experienced an average of 354 disasters, 68,000 deaths, 210 million people affected and an estimated US$153bn was incurred in damages (Minges, 2019). To cushion the effects of natural disasters, humanitarian logistics are called for. To aid vulnerable communities affected by natural disasters or complex emergencies, a variety of operations are included in humanitarian logistics, including preparation, planning, procurement, transportation, warehousing and tracking and tracing of commodities (Raillani et al., 2020). The management of the humanitarian supply chain (HSC) involves the integration and coordination of a large group of divergent players. To harmonize and integrate the activities and functions of the divergent players, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are crucial in the dissemination of information to more humanitarian actors. The smooth flow of information results in better coordination and the creation of strong links between the HSC units (Thomas and Kopczak, 2005; Altay and Labonte, 2014).

Over the past years, Zimbabwe has witnessed several disasters which came in the form of droughts, floods and disease outbreaks among others (Chari and Ngcamu, 2019). As a consequence, the demand for humanitarian aid has been on a sharp increase. In February 2017 tropical Cyclone Dineo pummeled Zimbabwe’s Tsholotsho district killing seven people, wrecked more than 4,000 homesteads and government structures and destroyed crops and livestock (Hill and Nhamire, 2017). Another memorable natural disaster is the Tokwe-Mukorsi flood which affected Zimbabwe in the year 2014, leaving 3,300 families homeless (Human Rights Watch, 2015).

On March 15, 2019, three neighboring countries, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe were hit by another cyclone, namely, Cyclone Idai. Cyclone Idai brought disastrous consequences on human lives and livelihoods due to cyclone induced floods, creating a humanitarian and ecological disaster. The two Zimbabwean districts of Chimanimani and Chipinge in Manicaland Province were the most affected by that natural disaster which left a devastating trail of destruction in infrastructure and human life. Zimbabwe recorded 102 deaths, and over 200 people were injured while about 250 people were missing by March 19, 2019 (OCHA, 2019).

Supply chain plays a critical role in humanitarian aid, especially in disaster management (Beamon, 2004). Chari et al (2020) noted that Cyclone Idai disaster response operations were heavily influenced by socioeconomic and political/governmental risks, poor or inadequate infrastructure and environmental factors. Consequently, there were problems with regard to poorly coordinated and malfunctioning supply chain structures, lack of integrated distribution network configuration, absence of trained human capital on disaster assessment and coordination in the disaster management process. HSC management scholars (Wentz, 2006; Comes and Van de Walle, 2016; Eldon and Kondakhchyan, 2018) recommend the adoption of ICT solutions to provide accurate accounting, a better decision-making process and control over the physical mode of distribution of aid to intended beneficiaries. Consequently, this study seeks to establish the impact of the adoption of ICTs on the HSC during Cyclone Idai relief operations in Zimbabwe. Cyclone disasters are common worldwide and, therefore, the Zimbabwean case of Cyclone Idai gives lessons on supply chain responses from a global perspective.

The Section 2 of this article presents the related literature, while the third section outlines the methodology adopted. The fourth section presents and discusses the results. The final section (fifth) outlines the conclusion and gives recommendations which include those for future studies based on the limitations of the current study.

2. Literature review

2.1 Humanitarian supply chain

Supply chain plays a key role in disaster response operations. It serves as a link between disaster preparedness and response, between procurement and distribution and between headquarters and field. It is critical to the effectiveness and responsiveness of major humanitarian programs such as health, food, shelter, water and sanitation (Thomas and Kopczak, 2005). HSC is the network created through the flow of services, supplies, information and finances between and among donors, beneficiaries, suppliers and, different units of humanitarian organizations to provide physical aid to beneficiaries. Humanitarian supply chain management (HSCM) is, therefore, the management of aid flows; that is, the movement and storage of raw materials, goods, services, financial resources, information, medicines, clothes, food and other essentials from the point of origin to the point of consumption to meet the needs of victims (Agarwal and Singh, 2018; Fontainha, 2017). HSCs have a variety of stakeholders. The stakeholders involved encompass local population, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private sector organizations, national police and intergovernmental organizations, the military, donors and the media (OECD, 2017; Paciarotti et al., 2021). The HSC is often unstable and as a result, more effective coordination and management strategies of disaster supply chains are increasingly called for (Oloruntoba and Gray, 2006). Disaster supply chain management and coordination presents unique difficulties. However, collaboration and task specialization among NGOs, the military, the government and private industry is a fundamental precondition in the HSCM despite the various cultural, political, geographical and historical contrasts among them (Paciarotti et al., 2021). To respond to several interventions in the shortest amount of time, humanitarian supply chains may significantly rely on volunteers and donors, government funds, philanthropic contributions from individuals and organizations and in-kind donations (Van Wassenhove, 2006). As the number and diversity of natural disasters continue to increase, information about disasters also continues to increase in volume, variety and velocity requiring the use of ITCs to handle such huge amount of information (Comes and Van de Walle, 2016).

2.2 Information communication technology in humanitarian relief operation

ICT is defined as “[…] skills around computing and communication devices, software that operates those, applications that run on them, and systems that are built with them” (D’Andrea et al., 2021). ICTs cut across a variety of technologies and other information processing technologies and systems. These include telecommunications technologies and infrastructure (fixed line, wireless, satellite-based and mobile infrastructure), and communication network technologies. Other technologies that form part of ICTs include broadcasting networks and technologies, under which are found radio and television networks, the internet as a globally based delivery platform which incorporates elements of computers, telecommunications, communication technologies and networks and other multimedia development and delivery technologies. All these converge to an integrated multimedia transmission and communication delivery infrastructure and platform with a global reach. Optimized communication channels provide decision-makers at each level with optimal information corresponding to the scope of their decisions. Accordingly, it is deemed necessary, from our point of view, to elaborate on common communication channels. The subsections below detail the various ICT tools in use in humanitarian situations. However, it must be clear that the ICT tools reviewed here are not exhaustive of available tools.

2.2.1 Public announcements

Public announcements (PAs) are available in the form of text, audio and video (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). Hearing-impaired people can view website-hosted sign language-produced video announcements. PAs give victims and potential victims timely advice on how to safeguard oneself in the event of a natural disaster or severe weather conditions (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). According to a study conducted in the USA by Greene et al. (2022), exposure to PAs may have enhanced the use of face masks and adherence to public health recommendations in a disaster situation.

2.2.2 Internet/e-mail

Internet use is spreading rapidly in the global context. The role of internet, e-mail and instant messages play in disaster warning entirely depends on their penetration within a community and usage by professionals such as first responders, coordinating bodies, etc. The internet is acknowledged to be one of the most reliable information infrastructures even under adverse physical conditions, and electronic mail is the most widely used application (Liu et al., 2018).

2.2.3 Broadcast radio and television

Radio and television remain the conventional media used in crisis relief since they are comparatively inexpensive, offer a secure yet another form of communication and, perhaps importantly, do not involve literacy. Radio is a much more open channel for the vulnerable, particularly women in rural households, sailors at sea or employees in the sector (Sharma et al., 2021). Broadcast radio has been used to disseminate early warning messages, as well as for awareness raising and community education.

2.2.4 Mobile phone technologies

The availability of mobile phones has greatly increased over the past decade, and the technology now represents an opportunity to be in direct, two-way contact with a broader population than has ever been possible before (Liu et al., 2018). Mobile phone connectivity, or the lack of it, is central in disaster risk reduction processes. Mobile phone technology can warn people of impending danger as well as organize response and recovery efforts in a postdisaster era, in close coordination with victims of disaster. The rapid growth in mobile phone usage in most countries has prompted humanitarian organizations to explore their extensive usage for DRR (UN-APCICT, 2010).

2.2.5 Social media

The social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have complimented traditional media outlets and has been very useful in timely and effective responses to natural and man-made disasters (Liu et al., 2018; Olafsson, 2011; Cooper et al., 2015). Social media has become an immensely valuable platform that enables people to easily create and share their own news, photos, videos and other information within their social networks. Social media tools are also relevant in humanitarian relief operations as it has the potential to increase breathe of information coverage in all stages of disaster relief operation providing the opportunity to promote the goals of disaster risk reduction (Cooper et al., 2015).

2.2.6 Geographic information systems

Geographic information systems (GIS) play several roles in case of floods, earthquakes or other natural disasters by providing planning information useful to governments, NGOs and other international organizations in the distribution of supplies (medicine, food, water, clothing, etc.) to emergency distribution centers (Kuchai et al., 2020). GIS sensors can be used to identify high-risk areas and prioritize them for mitigation activities. GIS provides rescue teams with the shortest evacuation routes, identify shelters outside the hazard zone and resources available (people, equipment and supplies) in the area (UN-APCICT, 2010). Relevant information from GIS can be distributed via the internet and other communication channels to communities and all stakeholders via Web portals and interactive maps.

2.2.7 Radio frequency identification

Radio frequency identification (RFID) has gained wide acceptance in the commercial sector as well as HSCM. RFID is a technology that uses communication via radio waves to improve tracking and tracing in supply chain management through the use of a device called an RFID tag (Masudin et al., 2021). RFID identifies the exact location and quantity of merchandise at various supply chain locations. RFID reduces theft translating into cost savings. Implementation of RFID improves inventory management shipment and receipt business processes supply chain became more efficient and faster.

2.2.8 Drone technology

Emergency workers can use drones to deliver food, water, communications devices and other necessities to stranded victims in difficult-to-reach locations. This provides first responders with an opportunity to conduct a mission-critical search and threat assessment of the disaster region before deploying relief personnel into the disaster area to carry out search and rescue operations (Wankmüller et al., 2021). They also allow rescue workers to efficiently cover large search grids when compared to traditional ground relief teams.

In the China Sichuan earthquake of 2022, drones were used by rescue workers to target priority areas by identifying damaged infrastructure with a large concentration of people (such as schools and hospitals) and routes that were impassable due to collapsed tunnels or bridges (Global Times, 2022). The South African National Defence Force (2022) used drones to gather intelligence and capture aerial photos in the wake of the devastating flooding and landslides that ruck the KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in South Africa in 2022.

2.2.9 Sensors

Sensor technology is one of the Internet of Things devices used in disaster management to help predict calamities (wildfires, cyclones, earthquakes, water levels and volcanic activities). These sensors provide individuals and communities threatened by hazards with information to take action assisting in disaster risk minimization and prevention, emergency response and disaster recovery saving lives, money and resources (Sinha et al., 2019; Abid et al., 2021).

2.3 Information and communication technologies effects on humanitarian supply chain operations

This section seeks to investigate how information and communication technologies enhance effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility in humanitarian supply.

2.3.1 Effectiveness

Supply chain effectiveness is the extent to which supply chain members meet the demands placed on them by their customers and suppliers (Abdul Aziz et al., 2017). The effectiveness of humanitarian relief operations is of growing importance owing to the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones that can be attributed to climate change (Mendelsohn et al., 2012). The effectiveness of the supply chain in handling relief distribution has become very important because in most cases the situation under which it operates is clearly erratic, turbulent and requiring a higher degree of flexibility (Oloruntoba and Gray, 2006). Other scholars assert that the role of the supply chain is becoming inextricably important in humanitarian logistics; hence it has become imperative that humanitarian relief organizations embrace new supply chain strategies such as the use of information technology for improving their effectiveness in service operations in humanitarian logistics (Heaslip, 2015). In addition, Kovacs and Spens (2007) explained that within humanitarian logistics the greatest focus shift has been from providing core products and services to the effectiveness of its supply chain. This means that humanitarian organizations have to improve the effectiveness of their supply chains in getting relief aid to the needy as early as possible. A healthy number of scholars are therefore in consensus that it is only a great logistics service that can enable the quick, safe and reliable supply of goods and services to the needy as and when necessary. In support of this position, Bölsche et al. (2013) hold that, if the right goods are received by the right people at the right time at the right place, in the right quantity and quality, then the supply chain can be described as effective as it would have contributed to alleviating the suffering of vulnerable people. ICTs offer an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of relief efforts to save lives, reduce the suffering of survivors and enable communities to restart normal life more quickly (Eldon and Kondakhchyan, 2018). This is achieved through the flow of information among stakeholders and has the potential to help improve the quality of the response to a crisis. It is, therefore, hypothesized that:


ICTs adoption is important to improving the effectiveness of relief operations.

2.3.2 Efficiency

Efficiency in the supply chain refers to the use of all available resources, including financial, human and physical ones, to meet customer demand as economically and speedily as possible (Minnich, 2006). ICT is perceived as a means for providing more efficient processes that may lead to lower costs in operations and service delivery. Efficiency in the supply chain is a key success factor because it ensures the proper flow of goods and services in a complex supply chain. Therefore, humanitarian operations in disasters should be planned to allow a rapid and appropriate response, minimizing the impact of disaster. Timely and accurate information is more critical now than at any time. Information and communication technologies are now being used as a means of facilitating communication, exchanging information and facilitating knowledge sharing between various organizations. Manufacturers, as well as humanitarian agencies, can make use of ICTs to boost food output and monitor inventories. The use of commodity movement processing and analysis systems and RFID tags has improved the tracking of food supplies and inventories. Deployment and exploitation of ICTs to facilities have the potential to improve administrative and service delivery efficiency (Aranzazu et al., 2009). According to Hagen (2010), ICT is being used by the HSC to improve performance, communication, motivate employees, increase response time and improve operations dynamics. Sople (2007) concluded that information technology solutions enable better decision-making, provide information on costs, lead to more control over physical distribution and make accounting more accurate. Hagen (2010) mentioned that ICT can be used to support the practice of disaster risk management in times of crisis as well as in times of planning and in times of reconstruction. The power of ICT lies in their ability to connect vast networks of individuals and organizations across greater geographic distances and facilitate the fast flow of information, capital, ideas, people and products. Therefore, ICTs have become essential tools for cooperation and collaboration in the disaster management process. The widespread use of mobile phones and internet has facilitated relief efforts by enabling the coordination of humanitarian aid organizations. ICTs are now recognized as an essential component of rescue and response operations, therefore access to adequate infrastructure is a prerequisite for organizations and individuals to adopt and use ICTs. The efficiency of humanitarian responses to a disaster and the number of lives saved are directly related to the ability of the HSC to compile, analyze and distribute information without delay. While start-up costs of ICTs are high when procuring hardware and software licenses, there are cost savings in the longer run (O’Donnell, 2017). Cost savings are found through time saved by cutting out data input phases, and through repeat uses of hardware and software. The significance of ICT is increasingly being acknowledged as strategy and new technologies are progressively penetrating the core business of humanitarian organizations. However, this process is largely limited to some developed countries (Aranzazu et al., 2009). It is, therefore, hypothesized that:


ICTs adoption is important to improve the efficiency of relief operations.

2.3.3 Flexibility

Flexibility of the supply chain is the ability to alter production rates, raw material acquisitions and transport capacity to effectively and efficiently react to changes in the volume, product mix and delivery of consumers’ demands (Wieteska, 2016). An HSC is unpredictable and turbulent due to high environmental uncertainty attributed to the disasters that occur anywhere and anytime. This is felt more acutely in developing countries with poor infrastructure or political instability (Scholten et al., 2010). Organizations must therefore build supply chain flexibility (Kamalahmadi and Mellat-Parast, 2016). Flexibility is one of the core elements in HSCM. Humanitarian organizations have faced challenges due to the inability to respond to disaster affected areas in a timely manner (Oloruntoba and Kovács, 2015). Oloruntoba and Kovács (2015) further argue that humanitarian relief operations must increase their flexibility to move relief materials efficiently and effectively to disaster affected areas. The flexibility of humanitarian SCM is divided into four categories which are: volume flexibility, delivery time flexibility, delivery mode flexibility and mix flexibility (Muntaka and Haruna, 2017). Eldon and Kondakhchyan (2018) are of the view that the use of ICTs enhances flexibility as it speeds up and simplifies the delivery of humanitarian aid. ICT solutions improve responsiveness by creating visibility of the materials pipeline and increasing the effectiveness of people and processes. In Nepal, after the 2015 earthquake, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) relied on the analysis of tweets and media to rapidly assess disaster damage and needs, and to determine where humanitarian players could be deployed (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific [ESCAP], 2016). It is, therefore, hypothesized that:


ICTs adoption significantly improves supply chain flexibility.

3. Methods

A pragmatic research philosophy was adopted to explore combinations of interdependent activities in which humanitarian workers used ICTs (or failed to use ICTs) optimally in different contexts. Using a mixed-method, the study gathered data using structured questionnaires and triangulated the research findings with interviews of humanitarian staff that were involved in Cyclone Idai relief efforts to ensure the validity of the study (O’Donoghue and Punch, 2003). A pragmatic approach provided a better understanding of the research problem while providing strengths that compensate for the weaknesses of individual research method (Sekaran and Bougie, 2020). The population for this study was heads of departments of all government ministries and field officers from humanitarian agencies that participated in Cyclone Idai relief operations in Chimanimani and Chipinge districts. The participants were from organizations which have been in operation for at least two years. Quantitative data was collected from 52 respondents, out of a population of 65, representing the different stakeholder organizations that included government departments, humanitarian organizations and private organizations, using Krejcie and Morgan (1970) sample size calculator. In-depth interviews with purposively sampled 12 HSC professionals were further used to critically explore the respondents’ feelings and perspectives on the use of ICTs in relief operations (Bird, 2016). These HSC actors were chosen on the basis of their expertise and experiences in using technologies to support the delivery of aid in Cyclone Idai relief operations. The researchers assured the respondents that the information gathered was to be treated in strict confidence and informed consent was sought from respondents, and they voluntarily choose whether or not to participate in this study. The participants were also informed prior to engagement in the research that they had the right to withdraw from participating in the study at any time if they so wished (Creswell, 2014). These researchers also ensured that the privacy and identity of the research participants were safeguarded, and information given by participants was treated as confidential (Resnik, 2018). The researchers used Cronbach alpha coefficient to test reliability of the questionnaire. The variables on the questionnaire had Cronbach’s alpha values of 0.872, 0.785 and 0.864 for effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility Likert scales and are all above the acceptable level of reliability (0.7), revealing that the research instrument was reliable (Sekaran and Bougie, 2020). Quantitative data from questionnaires was analyzed using STATA version 12 and presented in tables. The study used the ordinary least squares regression model to estimate conditional correlation of technology adoption and relief operations in Cyclone Idai, Zimbabwe. Correlation coefficients closer to −1.0 or 1.0, imply stronger correlation while correlation coefficient close to zero imply weaker correlation exists between the two variables. Qualitative data was analyzed in NVivo using thematic analysis and presented in vignettes.

4. Results

4.1 Background information

The questionnaire required respondents to indicate the origin of their organization, their organization’s experience in the humanitarian sector, the point at which they had Cyclone Idai budget ready and the frequency at which their organization trains employees. Findings are presented in Table 1 and interpreted accordingly.

Results presented in Table 1 show that a large proportion of respondents’ organizations (72.7%) were local organizations, while 27.3% of the respondent organizations were international. Table 1 also indicates that a sizeable number of organizations (50%) had at most five years’ experience in participating in humanitarian operations, implying that most were inexperienced in this sector. Findings in Table 1 further show that only 38.1% of respondent organizations had budgets set aside for such disasters as cyclones, and 61.9% set aside a budget after the Cyclone Idai. This means that most of the organizations had their budgets approved after the cyclone had landed. Most organizations (68.2%) have no organized employee training programs.

4.2 Descriptive statistics

Data was collected from 52 respondents representing the different stakeholder organizations on the extent of adoption of ICTs in Cyclone Idai relief operations in Zimbabwe. The means and standard deviations of the data collected is presented in Table 2.

The findings reveal that a significant number (mean = 4.455 ± 0.296) relied on the use of social media in preparedness and delivery of aid to the victims of Cyclone Idai. In addition, most of the organizations used emails to communicate with goods and service providers. The data indicate that the humanitarian stakeholders also made use of mobile phones to communicate with victims and other partner organizations. However, the results revealed little use of ICT tools such as broadcasting media, (mean = 2.182 ± 0.664), RFID (mean = 2.401 ± 0.0.781), sensors (mean = 2.325 ± 0.468), GIS (mean = 2.500 ± 0.594), public announcement (mean = 2.227 ± 0.669) and drones (mean = 0.2.031 ± 0.922). Results from interviews with key informants confirmed these quantitative results. Interview participants revealed that humanitarian stakeholders in Cyclone Idai relied heavily on the internet, mobile communication and social `media to relay information. The informants further revealed that there was scant use of other technologies such as broadcasting media, GIS, sensors, RFID, public announcement and drones. Participants revealed that radio was one of the poorly accessed media in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland province. However, interviewees hailed the role played by Diamond FM, a radio station that broadcasts from Manicaland Province:

The radio station quickly disseminated information to the community as well as to the potential relief providers. We wish there were more community radio channels, which could have warned people about the looming danger, and saved lives and costs. (Participant 4, 28 May, 2019)

4.3 Inferential statistics

Table 3 presents inferential statistics on the influence of the adoption of ICTs on effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility in Cyclone Idai relief operations in Zimbabwe.

Table 3 shows the conditional correlation of technology adoption and relief operations during Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe. The table reveals that ICT adoption improves effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility in relief operations. Column (I) of the table shows that the adoption of ICTs improved the effectiveness of relief operations by 13.7% at a 5% level of significance. Qualitative results from interviews with key informants confirmed the above quantitative results. One participant stated:

We were able to get update about Cyclone Idai speed and direction and when it would reach certain areas using web app, such as Cyclocane, which showed graphs and pictures of the cyclone. We were able to know where help was required and were able to evacuate some residents before the cyclone could be worse. (Participant 12, 20 April, 2019)

There was also agreement among participants that affected communities turned to social media and other technologies to communicate their situation to the world. A humanitarian professional said:

Through social media the community informed humanitarian actors of the latest developments about the cyclone and were also able to exchange information amongst themselves. Through use of the Internet and online social media, the community shared pictures, messages and tweets providing critical information for relief operators. The pictures from Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp attracted more humanitarian assistance. Relief operators were able to identify who was in need, where they were and what they needed and were able to deliver the right product, to the right people, at the right time, in correct condition and packaging. (Participant 11, 22 May 2021)

This result is consistent with an earlier study by Eldon and Kondakhchyan (2018) which reported that the adoption of ICTs offers an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of the organizations’ work.

Column (II) of Table 2 shows that adopting ICTs improves the efficiency of relief operations by 6.14%, at a 5% level of significance. Data from key informant interviews corroborated that ICTs had a positive role in achieving efficiency in HSCM in Cyclone Idai. According to one participant:

The availability and usage of mobile phones and social media platforms by people assisted us in a big way during the Cyclone Idai humanitarian crisis in facilitating humanitarian support. We were able to send cash transfers through Mobile cash, and e-vouchers were cheaper than in-kind food assistance. I think this saved us a lot of money and it’s a major transformation for humanitarian assistance.

Another key informant also corroborated the results from the questionnaire by indicating that:

Though drones were not widely used, there was one organization that used them to search and rescue victims in remote areas. They were also useful in assessing the condition of transportation routes and identifying areas that were cut off. We were able to identify alternative transport routes. Victims in inaccessible areas were air rescued by helicopters from the Zimbabwe Military Army.

This result is consistent with earlier studies by Williams who found that ICT facilitated a fast flow of information, capital, ideas, people and products.

Column (III) indicates that the use of ICTs increases the flexibility of relief operations by 32.1%, at a 5% level of significance. Results from the questionnaire agree with results from interviews with selected humanitarian professionals. Several participants noted that the adoption of ICT enabled flexibility in Cyclone Idai relief operations in Zimbabwe:

The community and the world at large shared pictures and videos of damages through Twitter and Facebook. Analysis of tweets and Facebook posts assisted us to rapidly assess the damage caused by the Cyclone and organizations were able to provide lifesaving and sustenance supplies such as tents, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, and solar lanterns to areas affected by the cyclone. (Participant 3, 12 May, 2019)

Similar to Participant 3, Participant 10 said:

There were cases where we gathered information through mobile phones instead of visiting in person. This allowed flexibility in responding to victim needs and saved us hours in traveling up and down. (Participant 10, 20 May, 2019)

Participant 1 emphasized similar sentiments about how the use of ICTs improved flexibility in humanitarian operations:

With mobile phones we were able to communicate with our country office to inform them of any changes in aid needs, either the changes in volume of needs or a mix of delivered products in any given time. We were also able to change our delivery times in response to changes in victim demands. (Participant 1, 20 May, 2019)

Supportive literature indicates that the use of ICTs enhanced flexibility as it speeds up and simplifies the delivery of humanitarian aid (Eldon and Kondakhchyan, 2018). In Nepal, after the 2015 earthquake, OCHA relied on the analysis of tweets and media to rapidly assess disaster damage and needs, and to determine where humanitarian players could be deployed (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), 2016).

5. Discussion

The research findings from descriptive statistics, inferential statistics and interviews are all converging on supporting the adoption of diverse ICTs tools in improving efficiency, flexibility and effectiveness in disaster relief operations. A case of Cyclone Idai, in Zimbabwe can be adopted as a yardstick to generalize the role of ICTs tools nationally and internationally in disaster responses. The adaptations highlighted in this study are in total agreement with research findings by Aziz et al. (2017), Oloruntoba and Kovács (2015) and Eldon and Kondakhchyan (2018). Their findings are also highly polarized toward the use of mobile platforms in gaining efficiency, flexibility and effectiveness in disaster relief operations in first world countries.

Notwithstanding the large geographical area that national radio covers, however, it is evident that mobile ICT technologies are the modalities of choice when it comes to disaster relief operations. These researchers concur with Kuchai et al. (2020), in their study they reveal the benefits that are harvested through the use of GIS in disaster responses. Through using GIS, disaster relief agencies can share information in real time through databases on computer-generated maps from diverse locations. In the absence of real-time ICT technologies, disaster relief operators will be left with no option but to use costly and time-consuming physical visits to the affected areas and locations to gather the relevant data and resources. Most disasters do not allow time to gather these resources and data in real time. Hence most scholars have the same voice in agreeing that GIS technologies provide a mechanism to centralize and visually display critical information during an emergency thereby reducing redundant time during disaster relief operations.

This study has confirmed that mobile phones and their associated social media platforms are effective in disaster relief situation, for they facilitate a huge direct communication link between the provider and the final consumer. Recent years are characterized by an exponential increase in number of mobile phones in the market resulting in reasonable drop in prices. This study concurs with Liu et al. (2018) that the increase in number of cellphone users allows a collection of extremely huge volumes of data sets (big data) in real time and is a suitable technique in the immediate aftermath of a disaster to accelerate the delivery of both goods and services. Disaster relief operators can use the big data collected in real time from mobile phones and the associated social media platform to improve efficiency, flexibility and effectiveness in disaster relief operations (Eldon and Kondakhchyan, 2018). It is, therefore, advisable for governments in both developed and developing country to invest in these ICT technologies and ensure faster collection and processing of big data from broader geographical areas under their jurisdiction.

6. Conclusion and recommendations

The focus of this study was to analyze the impact of ICTs on humanitarian relief operations and the case of Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe was used as a typical example for a global perspective. There were three major findings. The study revealed that the adoption of ICTs had an impact on the effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility of humanitarian relief operations. More specifically, findings show that the adoption of ICTs in the case of Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe significantly improved effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility of relief operations. These research findings are universal in nature and can be generalized to any developing or developed country, since the ICTs technologies are the same globally.

Nationally and internationally the study findings are of importance to the academia, industry and policymakers. To the academia, it adds to the body of knowledge since this area has not been previously discussed extensively. This study advances the theoretical knowledge in humanitarian relief operations, and more specifically provides open insights on the effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility of ICTs in humanitarian relief operation as shown by the context of Cyclone Idai disaster in Zimbabwe. The study findings suggest that humanitarian organizations need to enhance investments in ICT tools and make optimal use of them ahead of traditional tools. Government also needs to promote the use of ICTs through policies that promote innovation and adoption of ICTs by private, public and third sector organizations. While significant progress has already been made in incorporating ICTs in HSC operations in Zimbabwe, the study recommends that promising and powerful new technologies such as drones need to be used more widely to improve disaster response and relief efforts. Drones can be used to deliver humanitarian aid to areas with limited access thereby reducing the cost and delivery times. Conclusively the ICTS adoption came with multitudes of positives to managers in relief operation sectors. The ICTs benefits can be repurposed to improve managerial efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility in any humanitarian relief organization. There is no study without limitations. The ICTs technologies are increasing exponentially every year and hence this study has not exhausted all of them. The study acknowledges that the combination of ICT tools in one study may be a limitation in that it provides a general perspective of ICTs. Therefore, we recommend further studies that focus on individual tools so as to optimize their individual contributions.


Conceptual model for both India and the UAE

Figure A1

Conceptual model for both India and the UAE

Background characteristics

Variable Mean SD Min Max
Origin of organization
National 0.727 0.456 0 1
International 0.273 0.456 0 1
≤2years 0.182 0.395 0 1
3≤ years ≤5 0.318 0.477 0 1
6≤ years ≤10 0.364 0.492 0 1
Years ≥11 0.136 0.351 0 1
After the cyclone 0.619 0.456 0 1
We always have budgets for
such disasters in place
0.381 0.294 0 1
Never 0.682 0.477 0 1
Annually 0.318 0.477 0 1

Source: Table created by authors

Descriptive statistics of ICTs adoption in Cyclone Idai relief operations

Variable Observations Mean SD Min Max
Social media 52 4.455 0.296 3 5
Broadcasting media 52 2.182 0.664 2 4
Internet/e-mails 52 4.091 0.684 3 5
Mobile phone 52 4.636 0.292 4 5
RFID 52 2.401 0.781 1 5
Sensors 52 2.325 0,468 1 5
GIS 52 2.500 0.594 1 4
Public announcements 52 2.227 0.669 2 5
Drones 52 2.031 0.922 2 4

Source: Table created by authors

Conditional correlation of technology adoption and relief operations in Cyclone Idai, Zimbabwe

Variables (I) (II) (III)
Effectiveness index Efficiency index Flexibility index
ICT adoption index 0.137** (0.300) 0.0614** (0.438) 0.321** (0.151)
Nature of organization 0.146 (2.129) 0.0565 (2.199) 3.675*** (0.548)
Tenure 1.372 (2.453) 3.066 (2.392) 0.0336 (0.504)
Budget 0.926* (1.916) 1.823* (2.735) 0.00614* (0.820)
Training 1.473 (1.199) 1.015 (1.448) 1.937*** (0.492)
Constant 13.09 (8.240) 20.55* (10.78) 27.63*** (3.804)
Observations 52 52 52
R-squared 0.314 0.101 0.497

Robust standard errors in parentheses ***p < 0.01; **p < 0.05; *p < 0.1

Source: Table created by authors

Appendix 1. Questionnaire

Figure A1

Appendix 2. Interview guide

1. Which ICTs have your organization used in Cyclone Idai relief operations?

2. What impact did the information communication and technology utilization have on the effectiveness of humanitarian relief operations in Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe?


  • Deliver the right supplies.

  • Poverty alleviation/Decrease human suffering.

  • Restore community normalcy.

  • Resilience.

  • Save lives.

3. What impact did the information communication and technology utilization have on the efficiency of humanitarian relief operations in Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe?


  • Cost of supplies.

  • Distribution costs.

  • Inventory holding costs.

  • Number of workers per aid recipient.

  • Number of hours spent serving an aid recipient.

  • Total dollars per aid recipient.

4. What impact did the information communication and technology utilization have on the flexibility of humanitarian relief operations in Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe?


  • Product mix.

  • Lead time.

  • Volume.

  • Quality.

  • Feedback.


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For their help with the data analysis for this study, the authors are grateful to Chabata Tichakunda Valentine, Sibanda Lidion and Ngcamu, Bethuel Sibongiseni.

Corresponding author

Felix Chari can be contacted at:

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