Isabel dos Santos: Africa's independent businesswoman

Article published on April 28, 2015
Article published on April 28, 2015

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

With a president for a father, a chess champion for a mother and a millionaire for a husband, it would be easy to think that Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s first female billionaire, has had things on a plate.

Dos Santos is the eldest daughter of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, and as not only the wealthiest but also most powerful woman in the continent of Africa, she has become a symbol of oil-rich Angola’s growing wealth and influence.

As an investor and entrepreneur, her business history ranges from nightclubs to telecommunications, nightclubs to diamonds, and with a net worth in excess of $3bn according to Forbes, her business acumen is not to be taken lightly.

It all began with dos Santos’ birth in 1971 in Baku, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

It was while studying at King’s College in London for a degree in electrical engineering that dos Santos met her future husband, Sindika Dokolo.

She returned to Angola in in the early 1990s and, after setting up a nightclub called Miami Beach and working with a German recycling company, she established her own trucking business.

It was then that her degree really came to the fore as her company helped develop a new walkie-talkie system.

More significantly, it opened the door into the world of telecommunications, where dos Santos’ big break arrived.

The business of mobile phones has exploded in Africa, and dos Santos’ decision to take a 25 per cent stake in Unitel, Angola’s first private mobile telephony operator, has paid rich dividends.

Its formation was controversial – rumors persist over the tender process and how much she paid for her stake – but there can be little doubt that the move helped establish her as a major player in the telecommunications market.

In 2013, Unitel was listed as Angola’s largest private company with an annual revenue of $2b US, with dos Santos’ share rumored to be worth $1b US.

Dos Santos diversified, becoming involved in Banco Internacional de Credito (BIC) which has enjoyed significant growth.

BIC has assets of approaching $7b US, with dos Santos’ share estimated to be worth around the $160m US mark.

Not content in delving into the world of finances, dos Santos has also tried her hand at the media market.

Her share of the Portuguese media giant is now thought to be close to $400m US, and underlines the wide-ranging and opportunistic mentality that she takes in the world of business.

Much of her profits from these projects are then invested in further business interests, including oil, cement and retail in a huge range of countries.

While critics argue that she benefited from being the President's daughter, facts are sacred and few would ignore her skills as a talented financier. To quote the Financial Times, "critics acknowledge Isabel dos Santos’s independent prowess as a businesswoman".

Considering the African country was ravaged by a civil war which raged for almost 27 years and still suffers from chronic social inequality, perhaps resentment is not surprising.

But one thing is undeniable – whatever her connections, dos Santos has always made the most of the tools at her disposal and combined it with hard work and determination.