sabel dos Santos is the Co-founder and Head of UNITEL, an Angolan telecommunications company which she formed with Portuguese Telecom in 2001. At UNITEL, she oversees the operations of business and provides leadership for rules and policies that will create unflinching growth for the company. Through her business insight, she ushered in projects on telecommunications infrastructure that created over fifty-thousand jobs in Angola. With the partnership she developed with several facility developers, she facilitated the building of mobile phones and technology centers; connected Angola to the global world; and eased communications between the peripheral and urban areas in the state.
An international investor and entrepreneur, Isabel is an Angolan businesswoman whose career mirrors ingenuity in the management of multiple businesses and the creation of opportunities for the less-privileged. From investment in telecommunications and media, to energy and construction, and to the banking sector, she has leveraged on her expertise to produce wealth for herself from streams of untapped resources, earning herself a name as an ‘outlier’ in a male-dominated business world. Isabel’s style of running business is stunning; her models are often constructed to promote corporate social responsibility. She installed the culture of giving back to the community in the operation of UNITEL, launching the ‘Seeds for the Future’ program to expose university students in Angola to the practical field of information and communication technology (ICT). Under her leadership, UNITEL maintains collaboration with Huawei to send students to Beijing for technical know-how and knowledge transfer.
A quick learner, Dos Santos made her professional entry into corporate world upon her return to Angola from London in the early 1990s. She had her first stint as Project Manager Engineer at Urbana 2000, a subsidiary of Jembas Group that was contracted for cleaning and disinfecting the state. Working in the firm, her business management skills were burnished to enviable standards, causing her to be sought out by major firms across the globe. Although she had access to financial instruments from her father, but the capital she made for herself was sufficient for her to break into the market in 1997, when she made her first debut into business venture, investing in the establishment of Luanda’s foremost beach restaurant and night club, Miami Beach Club.
The success that trailed her investment prompted her interest in Africa’s diamond markets and trucking business. She formed the Trans-Atlantic Investment Services to explore this aspect of African’s business and handed over the management to her mother, while she superintended her trucking company directly. An appealing attribute of Isabel is the opportunities she sees in every problem. Through the trucking business she discovered that the lack of telecommunications facilities in Angola, except for walkie-talkie, could be a fertile ground for international investment, and she quickly explored the sector, partnering with Portuguese Telecom to found UNITEL in 2001. She purchased 25% stake through her company VIDATEL and steered the growth of the firm. So good was Isabel’s performance that by 2014, UNITEL’s customer base had been pushed to nine million with over two billion dollars of revenue. As her businesses blossomed, she leaned on UNITEL International Holdings to launch her second business in telecommunications. She acquired T+, a mobile operator in Cape Verde and obtained license to operate in Sao Tome and Principe.
An interesting aspect of Isabel’s business career is the strategies she adopts in building businesses and investment. Her ability to cultivate relationships with business giants outside her shores has, no doubt, opened her to opportunities outside Angola. She tapped into the energy sector of the country through her partnership with the Americo Amorim, late Portuguese’ business magnate and got some stake in Amorim Energia through her holdings in Angola’s Sonangol oil firm.
Still leaning on her strong network with international business partners, in 2005 she delved into the banking sector, and initiated a partnership with Fernando Teles to establish Banco International de Credito (BIC). Through her influence, the operations of the bank experienced a steep climb in customer base in Angola, increasing the asset base to almost seven billion in 2012. Through her 20% stakes at Banco Portugues de Investment, the company was able to acquire the Nationalized Portuguese bank, Banco Portugues de Negocios. With the development of interest in multimedia, the business guru leveraged on UNITEL Holdings to promote the development of cable television and telecom through her 29 per cent shares with ZON. The percentage of her shares and her contribution to the growth of firm delivered to her a Non-Executive directorate position. In 2012, she led the processes that culminated in the merger between ZON and Sanaecom. With a series of acquisitions and mergers proposed and implemented by Isabel, ZON has become one of Portugal’s primary multimedia companies with services in the areas of satellite, mobile service, and internet.
As an entrepreneur, she has imbibed the culture of stake ownership in diverse companies, and began to hold some stake in prominent firms including Kento Holdings, a Maltese investment company with 10 percent shares in ZON Multimedia; Energias de Portugal, an energy company in Portugal; the Lisbon-based Santoro Finance, UNITEL International Holdings B.V. and Esperaza Holding B.V.
Isabels’s brief service as the head of Sonangol, an Angolan state-owned oil company, tells another aspect of her contributions in public service. When she was appointed by her father, Angola’s former President José Eduardo dos Santos, as the Chair of Sonangol in 2017, she led the oil company in a reformation process that culminated in the reduction of its debt portfolios to seven billion dollars from thirteen billion dollars, while bringing the revenue from fourteen billion dollars to fifteen billion dollars. Her tenure in the office was cut short when Jao Lourenco became the new president after her father stepped down of power.
As a model for women in business, dos Santos is involved with several projects geared towards women empowerment and education. UNITEL, under her leadership, has designed ‘Women for the Future’ scholarship programme to mentor and encourage women’s influx into the technology sector.
An alumnus of King’s College in London where she studied Electrical Engineering and Business Management, Isabel’s business career has received a number of commendations. She was ranked by Forbes as the 8th Africa billionaire in 2019 with a net worth of two billion dollars ($2.1 billion).
- (2019). Isabel dos Santos: An Empowering Entrepreneur of the 21st Century and a Champion for Gender Equality. Medium Corporation. https://medium.com/@suiting_up/women-in-business-isabel-dos-santos-c8fb83412953/
- Gazette (2019). Isabel dos Santos Seeding the Future of Angola. https://gazetteday.com/2019/07/isabel-dos-santos-seeding-future-of-angola/
- Benard Nwoki. (2019). Isabel Dos Santos Bio, Age, Family, Husband, Children, Career & House. https://informationcradle.com/africa/isabel-dos-santos/
- Isabel dos Santos. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabel_dos_Santos#cite_n https://londonlovesbusiness.com/inspiring-economic-change-in-africa/ ote-27/
- John Saunders. (2019). Inspiring economic change in Africa. London Loves Business.