Member Monthly: The realities of moving humanitarian aid food across the world

Thu 28 Mar 2024
Posted by: Phil Adnett
Elliot Face

Last year, a food factory had an issue.

Several trucks’ worth of goods had been produced without a buyer, and were fast approaching their sell-by date.

Normally, it would have be destroyed at cost to the business. However, thanks to a kind donation, it could be sent instead to feed hungry people in Ukraine, who face continued hardship after the Russian invasion of their home country. 

Getting these life-saving food goods from a factory in England to Ukraine, or Zimbabwe or Nicaragua, isn’t just a logistical issue. It’s a customs challenge.

Enter Elliot Harris, founder of Pallet Aid Support Services and Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT) member.

Social enterprise

Pallet Aid is a social enterprise that helps charities get their donations from the UK into other countries.

The venture's origins start around the time of the 2015 refugee crisis, when the civil war in Syria displaced tens of thousands of people.

Entire communities were left in need, often stranded miles away from home on distant shores, sometimes with governments who were unwilling, or unable, to support their basic needs. Elliot was among thousands of volunteers who stepped in to help provide everything from clothing to food. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Harris, then working as a support worker for the homeless, began getting more and more involved in transporting goods to other parts of the world. Post-Brexit, the task of shipping humanitarian goods from the UK got a lot more difficult.

A lot to learn

“I had to learn a lot about customs and logistics very quickly,” he says, adding that Pallet Aid was born to be the “exporter of record for aid that was leaving the UK”.

“I first created the company to take some of the risks and the responsibilities on myself,” he explains.

Elliot soon found himself being relied upon by other NGOs and charities to organise shipments, eventually ending up as more of a consultant.

Based in Cambridgeshire, but working on sites around the UK and beyond, Pallet Aid Support Services now provides services including system design, management, customs support and logistical advice to NGOs and companies that donate goods for humanitarian aid.

“I did the Export Academy to help me broaden my knowledge, as one of the things that anyone will say is that when it comes to customs is that there doesn't seem to be a lot in the way of a Bible anywhere, or textbooks that you would get in many other areas of work.”

Before getting training, he said that he had a lot of “very detailed knowledge on some very specific things”, like very niche areas of Romanian customs duty-relief law, but found he had “glaring gaps” in other areas of trade and customs procedures. 

A volunteer mindset

Many of the people that he works with are volunteers and there is always work in convincing organisations that have no idea about customs procedures that “no, you can’t just chuck a little bit extra into the container”.

“It is a really big issue. It's a real culture change for people.”

The hope of ‘winging it’ is all too common, especially when well-meaning people are confronted with items like commercial invoices or other technical documentation.

The extra complication for Harris is that many of the items he helps export are food and other sanitary or phytosanitary (SPS) goods.

“The great news though is that volunteers have shown a real willingness to learn when there's the support and guidance to do so. They've really proved that volunteer doesn't mean amateur”

Logistics meets good intentions 

Even if the intention is there, getting the goods from one country to another is not that easy.

The primary problem is that customs systems aren’t designed to handle free goods, donated without a commercial purpose.

“Companies don't know how to interact with groups who can use their available goods-in-kind stock donations, or even how to navigate the logistics, because the customs regions and tariffs are designed for transactions, and they're designed for purchases.

“They really, really struggle with things that aren't purchases and you have to adapt to the system to give it [what it] wants, even if it's not designed for it, whilst also being honest.”

Any delays aren’t just commercial; they put vulnerable people at risk. 


Another issue is the receiving countries.

In comparison to nations in Eastern Europe, Central America and Africa, the UK has an advanced set of tools to help traders understand how their goods will be treated.

When shipping to Serbia or to Zimbabwe, there isn’t an easy Commodity Code tracker on a government website or detailed guidance on exporting certain products into the country.

Even where there is clear guidance, sometimes the on-the-ground reality is a little bit different.

“Across Europe, there are generally systems designed to allow for things like humanitarian aid and disaster relief to be accepted into countries without being charged duties or in VAT.

“However, these processes things often aren't really enshrined in primary legislation, so usually they're in secondary legislation.

“Sometimes they're in governance notes, sometimes they're just pretty much made up by departments on the fly.”


Post-Brexit, it took three months of work to start getting goods over to France. When sending to Greece, very specific financial documents with “exactly the right kind of registration” are required before certain tax reliefs are applied.

“It really was a big deal: one of the difficult things we find a lot is with classification.”

When a company is developing a product for export they will often spend money in-house or on consultants to identify find the right customs classification for their specific range of products. They may even modify how the product is made or shipped in order to sit within a certain commodity or HS code depending on regulatory or cost considerations. 

With donated aid, every shipment brings a different set of products and a whole new classification challenge. This means careful information gathering about each product being shipped, working closely with stakeholders.

The UK’s classification tools and well-documented system makes it things easier to identify commodity codes used for export and import procedures..

As a reminder, Harris started this as a volunteer, and works with some grassroots organisations that have little-to-no money and who are trying to send food goods to Lebanon, Burkina Faso and Serbia. It, clearly, requires a lot of work and expertise.

“We are just finding new products that we're trying to ship every day and then we're having to classify them again, which is incredibly hard work and requires a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge to do.

Whether it’s classification or any other part of the process, it’s been made possible by people working in the private sector giving their time to share their knowledge, something that I hope to continue to do with other Institute of Export & International Trade members.”

If you’d like to contribute export/import knowledge or stock to help people in need in the UK or abroad then drop him an email at

For those of you who are struggling with SPS exports, consider signing up to the IOE&IT’s SPS training course or looking at its SPS consultancy support.

Business members of IOE&IT can also make use of the Technical Helpline.