An International Investor and Her Vision of the Future
The career of Isabel dos Santos has been marked by a steady ascent up the ladder of international business and finance, from her native Angola to her current position as a stakeholder in multiple international conglomerates. She’s recognized as Africa’s wealthiest woman and one its youngest billionaires and — in this role — is developing her vision of the continent’s future.
An independent businesswoman, her portfolio is built around the banking, construction, energy, and telecommunication sectors in her native Angola and nearby African states and throughout Europe, primarily Portugal. She is deeply committed to expanding economic opportunity in her native country and supporting the role of women in the world of business.
A Political Daughter
While a student in Azerbaijan, dos Santos’s father Jose Eduardo dos Santos met her mother Tatiana Kukanova. The future president of Angola was a member of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA, Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) and was sent to study engineering in the Soviet Union. Once he returned to Angola he came to play an important part in its independence movement, which was finally achieved in 1975. His role led to him becoming the new nation’s first prime minister. Then, in 1979, he became president following the death of Agostinho Neto. He continued in that role until 2017.
Prior to this, her parents divorced and her mother relocated to London. Dos Santos was raised to be independent and pursue a course not defined by traditional gender roles while spending time in both Angola and England.
“I was not raised in a household that told me to wait until I met a man to marry and support me. I was raised to understand that hard work and perseverance through adversity is how you make a name for yourself. Having that type of upbringing gave me an independence and ambition that few African women realize they have,” she told the Interview: Your Story Is Our Business website. “I advise all parents to strive to raise their daughters this way—by instilling in them confidence and ambition, you are giving them the support they need to become successful businesswomen.”
Although Angola is most closely tied to Portugal by history, it was England that was the backdrop of dos Santos’s education. After attending a state school in Luanda, Angola’s capital, dos Santos attended boarding school in England and then pursued her degree in electrical engineering at King’s College in London (where she also studied business management).
Education continues to be a special passion of dos Santos, especially for young women in Africa.
“I also believe entrepreneurs are the key to bringing prosperity to the countries of Africa. I am deeply committed to supporting small businesses with big dreams, and I cherish the opportunities I’ve been given to give speeches to young women at universities and institutions around the world,” she related in the Interview: Your Story Is Our Business conversation. “Education, after all, is one of the most important features of society. Just as my father educated me to be independent, strong, and ambitious, so should we establish an education system that gives all of the young women of Africa the confidence they need to succeed.”
“I was not raised in a household that told me to wait until I met a man to marry and support me. I was raised to understand that hard work and perseverance through adversity is how you make a name for yourself. Having that type of upbringing gave me an independence and ambition that few African women realize they have.”
The Beginnings of a Business Empire
Returning to her native Angola, she became a project manager engineer for a subsidiary of the Jembas Group. She soon jumped directly into entrepreneurship by partnering in the Miami Beach bar and restaurant in Luanda. It’s still one of the capital’s hotspots.
“I’ve always been extremely independent. When I started working, I started off with a very small business,” dos Santos explained in an interview with CNN. “A very small business with very little capital and it grew, as I went along, as I invested more, and my business became more successful.”
Soon thereafter she got in on the ground floor of the imminent cell phone revolution that was about to sweep Africa. She purchased a stake in Unitel when it became the first mobile operator granted an Angolan license in 1999. The firm Unitel S.A. was established in 2001 and, through her company Vidatel, dos Santos came to control a 25 percent stake in the telecommunication startup.
Within a decade Africa was enjoying the world’s fastest growth in the mobile sector. Unitel S.A. expanded rapidly and by 2014 its Angolan customer base was upwards of 9 million. It is now one of Angola’s most successful and profitable companies, with revenue of over $2 billion.
Based on this early success, dos Santos began to expand her telecommunications holdings outside of Angola, acquiring the Cape Verde mobile company T+ and then the second telecom license to operate in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Broad and Rapid Diversification
As her investment in telecommunications blossomed dos Santos began to steadily diversify of her portfolio — including major moves into Portuguese holdings — that has resulted in her thriving business empire and recognition as one of Africa’s most influential investors. Her primary initial areas of venture financing were oil and cement production and banking.
Angola is one the second largest oil producer in Africa (Nigeria being the first). After forging a partnership with the late Portuguese industrialist Americo Amorim, dos Santos came to have a stake in the energy conglomerate Amorim Energia through her holdings in Angola’s Sonangol oil firm. Amorim Energia went onto to acquire a stake in the once state-owned Portuguese oil company Galp Energia.
Also important to Angola’s economy is its primary cement factory, owned by Nova Cimangola, another entity dos Santos added to her portfolio. She would eventually serve as chair of its board of directors.
And via her partnership with Amorim, who began investing in Angola soon after its civil war had ended, dos Santos expanded into the banking sector as an initial stakeholder in Banco Internacional de Credito (BIC) Angola. The bank expanded rapidly and by 2012 held assets of $6.9 billion.
During this boom period in Angola, dos Santos also partnered with the Portuguese retailer Sonae to bring a chain of hypermarkets — big-box stores selling both food and consumer goods — with her retail company Condis. This experience helped her gain a better understanding of the agriculture supply chain and realize the potential for African farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs to play a greater role in it.
It was also during this period that — in a complex and ironic turn of events —the former colony, Angola, suddenly became a source of capital for the former colonizer, Portugal. As part of the fallout from the global stock market crash, Portugal entered a prolonged financial crisis beginning in 2010. Given dos Santos’s deep ties with her partner Amorim (who died in 2017), she was in a position to further expand her business interests into Europe. Dos Santos was able to become one of the primary shareholders of ZON Multimédia which, after a series of acquisitions and mergers, has become part of NOS, one of Portugal’s primary media companies that provides satellite, cable, Internet, and mobile services.
She was also able to leverage a stake in the financial sector, including Banco BIC Português and Banco Português de Investimento.
Today, dos Santos has ownership stakes in a wide variety of companies, including the Maltese-registered investment firm Kento Holding (which holds 10 percent of ZON Multimédia), the Portuguese energy company Energias de Portugal, the Gibraltar-based Trans Africa Investment Services, the Lisbon-based Santoro Finance, and Unitel International Holdings B.V. and Esperaza Holding B.V. (both based in Amsterdam).
“My mission — and truly my passion — is to be an entrepreneur. I love building things,” dos Santos summed up her current career at a Reuters Newsmaker event in London in 2017. “I believe there are many ways to solve Africa’s issues and development — creating jobs, creating opportunities. And business is just as good as politics. For the time being, I want to be an entrepreneur.”
To learn more about Isabel dos Santos, visit her personal website: https://www.isabeldossantos.com/
Vision For the Future of Africa
Her unusual life story and access to powerful financial instruments have made her both committed to African economic development and bullish on its future. The history of Africa’s natural resources being extracted — with little wealth left behind for Africans — is beginning to transition to more modern economies across the continent.
“I mean, we are blessed continent because we’re full of commodities that are naturally just there, so can we say that we’re not going to explore them? Probably not,” dos Santos explained at an open session of the London Business School Africa Business Summit 2017. “So you mention that we have been resource driven. That’s true. But when we look at commodities we have two types of commodities. We have the hard commodity, so we’ll think about the mining and you know different mineral resources, but we also have the soft commodities, all the agricultural-based commodities. And I think on those ones, the soft commodities, there’s a lot of work that we can do.”
Her experience building hypermarkets, which introduced new types of consumer patterns to Angola, is part of her thinking. New consumers created the opportunity for new producers.
“One of the biggest drivers to assimilate the internal market is undoubtedly getting our retail to be much more modern. What do I mean by that? Well, think about Europe if you go back in the 80s or 70s when these massive hypermarkets and supermarkets started growing — what impacts did they have to the small farmers and producers?” she continued at the African Business Summit. “Well, they were able to come to these producers and say, ‘look, you’re growing potatoes or lettuce or milk — I will buy a certain part of your production and I’ll guarantee that you have a certain amount of income.’ So, this is a model that we’ve taken into Angola.”
She points to the growing middle class that marks Angola and a number of other African nations as the basis for entrepreneurial opportunities to be had. The cycle of investment and growth will solidify and modernize the private sector economies of these countries and the continent as a whole. Dos Santos sees the agricultural sector as being a very important aspect of that transformation.
“The continent is blessed with fertile land, great rivers, and enormous agricultural potential. We are creating a large support network for small-scale local producers [and] ensure them that their produce reaches consumers in the big cities. Thanks to these small changes, agricultural communities manage to shift from subsistence farming to value-generating agriculture,” she writes in a blog post at her website. “I believe that the generated wealth returns to the community — through more education for children, more opportunities for young people, new businesses that grow. It is a virtuous circle that allows small producers to improve their own lives and take their produce to consumers beyond local markets. The opportunity of reaching modern retail, which absorbs the best a country can produce, reduces the need for imports. It allows a new economy to grow.”
“I believe that the generated wealth returns to the community — through more education for children, more opportunities for young people, new businesses that grow. It is a virtuous circle that allows small producers to improve their own lives and take their produce to consumers beyond local markets. The opportunity of reaching modern retail, which absorbs the best a country can produce, reduces the need for imports. It allows a new economy to grow.”
A Powerful Woman in a Man’s World
She has become one of Africa’s most powerful businesspeople and oversees significant financial holdings spanning many nations and two continents. Which dos Santos realizes makes her an outlier. Very few women have scaled the business peaks that she has.
“Women employed at any level of Africa’s business world know well that discrimination and sexism are very real concerns. Even during the height of my career, my opinions are second-guessed, as if being a woman makes me incapable of negotiating deals on my own,” she related in the Interview: Your Story Is Our Business chat. “Despite the impairing prejudices at every level of the African business world, it is possible for women to become successful. It will take endurance, talent, and grit, but it can happen. I advise young women to think about their skills or passions. This is the best place to start, and it’s even better if you can couple them with Angola’s already untapped resources like tourism, minerals, agriculture, and manufacturing.”
Since 2003 dos Santos has been married to Sindika Dokolo. He is an art collector from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have four children.