For Uganda, Help's on the Line

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Eric Cantor works to provide mobile phones to villagers in rural Uganda. He gives thanks from a far-flung place.


You know, Rachel. Rachel, you and I have a friend.


We do.

PESCA: Yeah, so…

MARTIN: We do?

PESCA: I'm going to announce this to the world. Rachel and I have a friend, and the world may be thinking well, you two guys have lived on this planet for a combined 70 years, I would think you'd have a friend. You know, Rachel is fairly outgoing. But what I'm trying to say is we have a friend in common.

MARTIN: We do.

PESCA: A friend in common we found this out a couple of years ago when we first met, and there's a clichéd phrase when you say about this when you find that you know someone in common you say, what?

MARTIN: Well, I would say it's a small world.

PESCA: Yes, it's a small world. Which brings us to quite the contrary that it's not that small because our friend, Eric Cantor, is in Uganda right now, doing something that I can't really figure out. So if you ever want to choose friend, what you do is you get a national radio show, and you bring him on.

Hey, Eric, how are you doing?

Mr. ERIC CANTOR (Business Technology Manager, Global Portfolio Team, Acumen Fund): Hey, friends there.

MARTIN: Hi, Eric Cantor.

Mr. CANTOR: Hi, Rachel. I am your friend.

PESCA: All right so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You are my friend.

PESCA: Is this the first time you found that out?

Mr. CANTOR: I - she'd never formally addressed me that way before, but I do appreciate.

MARTIN: Now, it's on national radio.

Mr. CANTOR: (unintelligible).

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's on national radio.

PESCA: What do you there in Uganda, Eric?

Mr. CANTOR: Well, today in Uganda is a special day, actually. It's the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, also known as CHOGM.


Mr. CANTOR: So here in Kampala, there's been signs around town for the last year and a half: Are you ready for CHOGM? And it's a small…

MARTIN: Are you ready for CHOGM, Eric?

Mr. CANTOR: …town with a pretty - well, I think I'm ready. I'm sitting in my house, avoiding the town which, of course, everybody's doing. So the town is completely empty, and there's no traffic.

MARTIN: But I interrupted you, but it's…

Mr. CANTOR: They spread all the warnings about.

PESCA: I was going to say when a…

Mr. CANTOR: A CHOGM is a 53 heads of Commonwealth Government, of former British colonies all come in together. And the queen arrived yesterday - too much fanfare - and apparently there's a bunch of high-level meetings going on with dignitaries that I've not been invited to.

PESCA: When a big thing like this happens in New York, where you and I are both from, no one even notices. You're saying it's a little bit different in Kampala. It's really a big deal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CANTOR: This is the only deal. The entire town has two days of holiday completely because of CHOGM. There's been a public works projects going on for, theoretically, the last 18 months. I think most of them happened in the last week and half. You see roads being torn up. You see construction 24 hours a day. All the houses that the queen passed on her way from the airport to town have been repainted, flowerbeds replanted, and a general slew of large contracts for hotels and restaurants and their facility.

PESCA: And Uganda's queen of England-crazy, right?

Mr. CANTOR: Uganda loves the queen. The queen was here, apparently, in 1954 when she became queen, or have learned that she was to become queen in a mango tree, they say. And of course, you know, having been a British protectorate, they're quite familiar with the British system.

Fifty-two other countries in the same boat are here as well. So there's 5,000 people that's descending on this tiny city, and unlike New York, it's not a city that's just absorbs, you know, a huge influx of visitors readily.

PESCA: Yeah, I would say…

Mr. CANTOR: It costs a lot of work, and I think some of it got down.

PESCA: The list of how CHOGM is as - how Kampala's unlike New York, probably pretty long, but listen, this is a show about - the sub-theme of our show is about do-gooders. And I know you hate to pat yourself on the back, but just briefly, tell us about the good your doing in Uganda.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CANTOR: Well, I do hate that term actually. But what we're looking at here is the mobile phone is an innovation you and I take for granted, but in developing countries, it's growing even faster than in the countries we live in. So when you ride out to a village in the middle of Uganda, there's a huge informal economy, trading clothing, production, food; but the only signs of private sector - of companies that you see, the only logos you see other than Coca-Cola, which, of course, is everywhere - is the logos of the phone companies. And they're everywhere.

So the point is people even in these dense villages, deep in the heart of Uganda, are walking around with mobile phones and using them. And this has been studied a good deal in the last three to four years, and a lot of programs to promote this because it enables people to participate in the economy.

But what we're looking at is how you take that a step further. And, you know, you've got all of these phones out there and everyone's making calls about market prices and checking all their cousins and asking for money to be sent from the towns to the villages. You know, what else can you do? Are there other things you can provide in a way of, you know, information about health or other agricultural support.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. CANTOR: Generally, fixing problems of information that exist in these areas.

PESCA: And are phones considered - quickly, are phones considered a luxury there or are they necessary?

Mr. CANTOR: Somewhat of a status symbol in certain markets. There's about a 10 percent penetration here. There's also a big advent in the rural areas of people who buy a phone and then resell the service. In fact, each mobile carrier has a program where they find entrepreneurs, who run some other business, sold these people a business, which is just a phone and maybe an antenna and bunch of airtime. And then those people walk around their village, letting people, who don't have a capital to buy their own phone, use, you know, and get all the benefits of it.

PESCA: All right.

Mr. CANTOR: And that's the type of channel we're focusing on our efforts as well.

PESCA: Thank you very much. Our friend, Eric Cantor, our man in Uganda.

Thanks, Eric.

MARTIN: Thanks, Eric. Stay tuned.

MR. CANTOR: Thank you, Mike. Thanks, Rachel.

PESCA: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, singer, songwriter, guitarist Joe Henry. This is BPP from NPR News.

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