Isabel dos Santos, oldest daughter of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, has amassed a fortune of more than $3 billion USD, making her the richest woman in Africa. With investments in a wide array of sectors, dos Santos has long been a controversial figure. Her wealth is far and beyond the imagination of most Angolans, where the average wages are less than $2 USD per day. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Africa’s only female billionaire, Angolan billionaire Isabel dos Santos.
Sources: Forbes.com, TheGuardian.com, FT.com, BET.com
Isabel dos Santos was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, where her parents were both studying engineering at the time. She grew up as the war for independence between Angola and its colonial ruler, Portugal, came to a head. Even after her father became president in 1979, she spent some time in a state school in Luanda before moving to London to live with her mother after her parents separated. She attended school there.
Growing up, Isabel was always business-minded, first selling chicken eggs at age of six to feed her candy-floss (cotton candy) habit. She also set up a garbage collection business at a young age that never went anywhere, but allowed her to learn from the failed venture and hone her business sense.
In addition to being the first and only billionaire in Africa, Isabel is also the continent’s youngest billionaire. Born in 1973, she is just 41 years old. She is often referred to derisively as “the princess” due to her rich upbringing in the presidential palace and subsequent success in the business world.
In 1997, the owner of Miami Beach, a run-down bar-restaurant in Luanda brought Isabel in as an investor. Though her initial investment was fairly minimal, the gravitas associated with her name helped the bar deal with government regulators that were after the bar over health and tax issues.
In 2003, dos Santos wed Congolese art collector Sindika Dokolo – and son of banking tycoon Sanu Dokolo – in an extravagant ceremony. There were rumors that a choir from Belgium was flown in for the event, and several African presidents were at the elaborate affair with more than 100 guests.
Partially due to her diverse business interests, and in part thanks to the international nature of her family, Isabel and her husband have homes in Luanda, London, Lisbon, and Johannesburg. She also speaks several languages, though leaves all of her dealings with the media to spokespeople, preferring to maintain a low personal profile.
In 1999, President Dos Santos and his government granted Unitel the rights to be the first private mobile telephone operator in Angola, and maintained the power to approve projects and direct the shareholding structure of the company. Isabel emerged from the deal with a 25-percent stake in Unitel. She said she invested her own capital. It remains unclear how much the initial investment was. Today, Unitel is Angola’s largest private company with annual revenue of more than $2 billion USD, and Isabel’s share is about $1 billion USD.
Dos Santos owns 28.8-percent of Zon, a Portuguese media conglomerate. Her investment is valued at more than $385 million USD. She is also a major controller in several other Portuguese companies including Banco BPI, in which she controls 19.5-percent of stock, valued at $465 million USD. She has been making moves to buy the majority stake in Portugal Telecom, a company that owns more than a quarter of Brazilian telecom operator Oi.
In 2012, the state-owned newspaper Jornal de Angola awarded Isabel the title Entrepreneur of the Year, and for years has been on a positive-spin campaign on her behalf. After Forbes Magazine publicly declared dos Santos a billionaire, the Jornal wrote, “While we give out best for Angola without poverty, we are elated with the fact that businesswoman Isabel dos Santos has become a reference in the world of finances. This is good for Angola and it fills Angolans with pride.”
Despite criticism that her vast wealth is at odds with the majority of Angolans who live below the poverty line, Isabel points to the fact that the middle class is growing, and she says poverty is lessening in her country as a direct result of the improving economy. “How do you get inequality lower? Well, by creating opportunities and creating more and more development,” she said. “You wake up in the morning and work, do something. It will take a lot of time but the more things happen, the more things are built.”
Angola’s poor standing in international corruption barometers calls into question the legitimacy of Isabel’s fortune. The lack of transparency in Angolan government transactions and business dealings makes it difficult to trace all her investments, and there’s much speculation about President dos Santos’s access to and interest in his daughter’s business ventures. Forbes reporters Kerry Dolan and Rafael Marques de Morais said, “As best as we can trace, every major Angolan investment held by dos Santos stems either from taking a chunk of a company that wants to do business in the country or from a stroke of the president’s pen that cut her into the action…Her story is a rare window into the same, tragic kleptocratic narrative that grips resource-rich countries around the world.”
Source: BET.com, Forbes.com
While Isabel admits that politics and business are often interwoven in Angola, particularly in the oil industry, she said she steers clear of that. In an interview, she insisted that “politics don’t come into it” in her businesses, and that she made “a conscious choice…to create that arms-length relationship (between herself and government) that is so difficult to see but, in fact, exists.” She also insists all her business dealings are legal, and that she’s “an independent business woman, and a private investor representing solely her own interests.”
Source: FT.com, BET.com