Imagine having to build a country from scratch. Richard Herbert
doesn't have to try too hard.
The former Sprint PCS engineer from Newport Beach, Calif., now is
creating southern Sudan's first cellphone network from the ground
Until last month, if you wanted to talk to someone across town in
southern Sudan's capital, Rumbek, there were two options: Go see
them face to face, or pay $2 a minute to talk via satellite phone.
There are no land-line phones here, and only about 10 miles of paved
roads. In fact, 22 years of civil war have left this one the least
developed places on the planet.
But as fear subsides, southern Sudan is reawakening and
rebuilding. A Jan. 9 peace deal ended Africa's longest civil war - a
conflict between north and south in which 2 million died. The first
signs of normalcy are appearing: Children, even girls, are going to
school - many for the first. (Only Afghanistan under the Taliban had
fewer girls graduate from eighth grade.) Some are starting to see a
life beyond the battlefield. And commerce is coming back.
Mr. Herbert's cellphone team is on the leading edge of a
developing post-war investment boom. When he arrived last August, he
had only a few acres of land and a broken 30-foot satellite dish to
work with. He had to charter planes to bring much of the new
"Most countries, even Afghanistan, have at least some
infrastructure," he says. "But southern Sudan - zero."
Much of the initial funding for rebuilding comes from
international donors and aid groups. The biggest funder, the US, may
give as much as $500 million.
But southern Sudan's leaders - former rebels who are joining the
national government and will control the south - are keen for
private-sector help, too. They invited in Herbert's firm, Network of
Last month, Herbert made the region's first cellphone calls. "We
called everyone we know," he says, grinning.
Already 1,000 customers here and in nearby Yei have paid $60 each
for a phone. One cellphone-toting construction foreman says he now
rings up Ugandan suppliers - and gets materials ordered fast. Locals
with family in Khartoum or Kenya are calling them for the first
But Herbert isn't finished. Soon Rumbek's offices will have
phones that use a wireless network that's as advanced as those in
high-tech US offices. The good thing, he says, about southern Sudan
starting from scratch is that it can leapfrog old technologies.
Yet the new network's mechanics are complex. For instance, all
calls outside Rumbek get routed through Canada, because there are no
switching stations here.
The fact that Herbert and his team are making calls at all,
symbolizes the complexities of development in Sudan - and yet the
yearning for it. "There's a lot of energy" focused on improving
things, Herbert says. "Otherwise all the deaths will have been in
No more tree climbing
For Salah Muhammad, peace means no more climbing trees for food.
He doesn't talk much about his life during the war. With some
coaxing, the tall, sinewy man will say that he survived by
scrambling up trees and taking honey from bees' nests. It was the
only way he could provide for his wife and four kids. He'd give some
honey to them - and use the rest to barter for food or raggedy
Today, he's clad in an Adidas muscle shirt, jeans, and a star-
spangled belt. And he proudly drives a dump truck as part of an $89
million UN project that includes building the a new road system in
southern Sudan. This is nation that's twice the size of California,
yet with only a few miles of paved roads.
Mr. Muhammad and about 30 others work 12 hours a day, six days a
week. Their goal is to finish about a half mile of road each day.
But that's not easy. There are tens of thousands of land mines in
southern Sudan. …