Isabel Dos Santos’ Vision of Growing Africa’s Economic With 5G Technology

Photo of author

( — December 16, 2019) — Isabel dos Santos is embracing her role in shaping policy and pushing for private-sector development in Angola and across Africa, which is providing valuable dividends for the people of Africa. As a woman growing up in the spotlight of her father, she has seen firsthand the issues facing the African country. She has spent the past several years on the road, attending forums and raising public awareness to improve and increase opportunities for Africa’s women and youth. As Africa’s first female billionaire and a telecom engineer, she’s calling for private investment in a solid 5G network in Africa to help develop the economy and business sector of the continent.

The government has decided to divest from the telecoms sector, and I think that’s a positive change. It could attract more investment. The government has to play a smaller role. I think it’s going to be difficult to have two (new) networks being built at the same time.

She’s also one of only two black female billionaires worldwide, sharing that recognition with Oprah Winfrey. Isabel dos Santos is unique in that regard in that she’s also an engineer, making her one of the richest women in STEM industries worldwide. Her focus on studies in a traditionally male-dominated field was supported by her parents, who raised her with the ideal of gender equality in traditionally patriarchal Africa. Though there have been advancements made in the past several years, Angola’s position at 125th out of 149 countries on the 2018 World Economic Forum’s gender gap report suggests there’s a lot of room for improvement.

This process began with her education in Great Britain, which empowered her to complete a bachelor of science in Electrical Engineering. She recalls quite vividly in one course being one of only two women enrolled. However, it was her exposure to Western economic theory that revolutionized her approach to telecoms when she returned home to Angola, feeding a passion for business that started at age 6, when she sold chicken eggs to earn pocket money for cotton candy.

I studied in the U.K. I did my A levels at St. Paul’s Girls School, and I did engineering at the University at King’s, and I was very exposed obviously to the Western business environment, and I realized the potential that it had. The transforming of the economy was a lot bigger than we actually understood. So one of the things I tried to do when I came back to Angola was in fact to use what I had seen elsewhere in terms of business drive and initiative in the private sector.

Her experiences in the U.K. included meeting her husband, Sindika, a fellow student at the college and father of their three children. Upon returning home, Isabel dos Santos’ introduction to private-sector telecommunications was with the formation of Unitel, the largest telecom in Angola after she had already formed several businesses in Angola, eventually providing employment in the country for over 50,000 people.

The company was formed because walkie-talkies were the primary communication method in Angola. Realizing that this limited option was holding back communications across Africa, she went on to acquire T+ in Cape Verde. Additional investments always focused on improving infrastructure and communications, with her focus on improving economic opportunity and education in Angola and Africa, a goal that she believes is best realized through improvements in the telecommunications industry in Africa.

My involvement in Unitel started because I used to do Motorola relay radio systems. We used to be a big provider of “walkie-talkie” radios. We migrated to building telecoms networks. There were a couple of networks that were designed by myself with a couple of other engineers: We designed the Luanda network, the Benguela network and the Huila network, so quite a few networks.

It was during this time that she began to notice the disparity between African investment, which was often focused on government involvement, and Western economic practices, which encouraged entrepreneurship and private industry. Her focus on social entrepreneurship has been the basis of the Unitel/Huawei partnership Seeds for the Future, Home Kuzola, ZAP TV, and Unitel’s scholarship programs for women in the information and communications fields, and future farmers.

Twenty years ago, the influence of public investment was huge. Even when people looked at resolving Africa’s problems, they always thought about it in terms of government. It was like: Let’s give government money and make sure government makes all the decisions. There was no room for the private sector. Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t hear of African business leaders or African entrepreneurs. The companies just didn’t exist, so when I started working in the private sector, it was because I didn’t want to go into the public sector. I didn’t want to go into politics. I didn’t really see the difference for my community that would come through policy. I wanted to provide economic opportunities.

Part of the reason for her success is her willingness to branch out to other sectors to promote this goal, including a partnership with Fernando Teles to create Banco Internacional de Credito, one of Angola’s largest financial institutions, which provides funding for new businesses. She’s also focused on investments that improve the quality of life for Angolans, including the energy sector and food supply.

However, her focus has always been on where Angola, Africa and the world are going. Looking beyond the current technology or planned development, she’s taking a long-term approach to a time when digital transformation, pervasive communications and freely-available education will level the playing field despite borders, gender and economic opportunity for all people.

One thing I like to do is to understand what the world is going to be like in 20–30 years’ time. For example, one thing that I’m very certain of is that we’re probably not going to have mobile phones. We’re going to have computers that we talk to. So 20 years ago, I was trying to think of the world of the future. One thing I understood is that even though Unitel was a mobile company, there was a world beyond mobile and an Africa beyond mobile, and that mobile was a very, very limited service. Beyond that, it would be the fintechs, the content, and there would be the training platform.

Her recent call for private investment in intelligent 5G transport networks is already yielding fruit, as South African mobile data network operator rain has launched its intelligent 5G transport network in partnership with Chinese multi-national Huawei. This call has come from her continued focus on infrastructure and communications development of the African continent to help improve the quality of life, education and equality for all people.

Telecom operators are eager to deploy the 5G network, but that requires a strong investment in energy, just as happened in telecommunications. I would like to see in the energy sector the same thing that happened in the telecommunications sector: a big investment from the private sector. Today, we are 1.2 billion people in Africa; by 2050, we will be 2.4 billion — more than in China. The investment required in infrastructure is huge.

Strong business leaders like Isabel dos Santos provide new opportunities for economic opportunity, education and development of Africa by providing an example of leadership through private industry rather than public investment. Public-private partnerships will help pave the way to lessening the gap between the classes in Angola through social corporate responsibility, improved communications and higher education. As digital transformation sweeps our society forward, women like Isabel dos Santos (@isabelaangola) will lead the way to a brave new future.