“Telecom operators are eager to deploy the 5G network, but that requires a strong investment in Energy, just as it happened in Telecommunications,” says Isabel dos Santos, one of the most successful and visible business leaders in Africa today. Dos Santos was one of the keynote speakers at the recent AfricaCom, the largest gathering of technology and telecommunications leaders on the continent. She stressed to the audience that new business opportunities in Africa “will be largely driven by (the) digital economy and e-commerce.” This requires large investments to upgrade the current telecommunications and energy infrastructure to be able to accommodate 5G technology and to reach the vast number of Africans who currently live outside of the power grid.
On the second day’s session at AfricaCom, dos Santos addressed those attending the conference on “Translating digital transformation into economic growth and prosperity.” She also participated in an all-women panel on the topic of “Using emerging technologies to support a vibrant and secure digital economy.” The entire conference was centered on the question as to how Africa can best harness the latest advances in digital technology to set up the continent to be, not just competitive, but to lead in the remainder of the 21st century. Dos Santos explained that her company, UNITEL, made a decision years ago to not just be a mobile phone carrier, but to invest in the infrastructure that makes telecommunications possible. Said dos Santos, “At UNITEL in Angola, we have built more than 14,000 km of fibre optical networks, so we’ve connected all the cities.” She continued, “Through UNITEL, in 20 years, we have invested through private money over $2.2 billion in fibre optical cables with no government money, with no subsidies.”
Investing in energy infrastructure in Africa
Dos Santos sees the lack of energy infrastructure in many parts of Africa as a key stumbling block to economic growth, especially in telecommunications. “We’re saying that we’re going to be delivering 5G networks into Africa, but can we deliver 5G network in an area with no electricity? Not likely,” she commented. Currently, more than 500 million people in Africa live without electric service. In some of the poorest countries, including Malawi, Chad, Ethiopia and Niger, less than 2 percent of the rural population has access to electricity. What’s more, the number of households with access to electricity has remained stagnant since the 1980s, and the rate is actually dropping among sub-Saharan countries.
There are many stumbling blocks to creating the infrastructure necessary to support a continent-wide energy grid. Chief among these is that, at least initially, the cost of building the infrastructure will force energy companies to price their commodities higher than the average African consumer can afford, making it difficult if not impossible for those companies to continue in business.
Isabel Dos Santos challenged business leaders to aim their investments not just at African’s urban centers, but at the needs of the millions of Africans who live in rural areas. She wants to see ways that the digital economy can help African farmers, small business owners and rural communities. She sees a time when individual farmers can find new markets for their products via the internet, with increased profit margins and decreased marketing costs.
Isabel dos Santos appealed for the need of a strong investment in the Energy sector in Africa for 5G networks: “Telecom operators are eager to deploy the 5G network, but that requires a strong investment in Energy, just as in Telecommunications.” https://t.co/UAFGMFrPvL via @FT
— Isabel Dos Santos (@isabelaangola) November 27, 2019
African economic growth
Africa’s population is the fastest growing in the world. The number of people living in Africa is set to double by 2050, overtaking China’s population in the process. Dos Santos explained that the population growth rate in her native Angola is “about 3.5 percent a year, that’s 1 million babies every year — that’s a lot of babies!” Finding good jobs for all of these people when they are ready to enter the workforce is going to be a challenge.
Public private partnerships
Dos Santos suggested public private partnerships (PPPs) as one solution to these roadblocks. These collaborations between government and the private sector have been very effective, she explained, in the telecommunications industry in Africa. She sees no reason why they couldn’t work in the energy industry. The main advantage of such a partnership is that private companies can feel secure in their investments with the government providing security and stability.
Dos Santos concluded her comments at the conference by conceding that establishing a digital economy in Africa will be a “rocky road.” However, she ended on a positive note, saying, “I see the rise of African champions. I think that we are going to have some big companies in the digital space in the digital economy. We still don’t have the Alibaba of Africa; we still don’t have the Amazon of Africa; so that’s a massive opportunity.”
About Isabel dos Santos
Isabel dos Santos is Africa’s richest woman, an astute businesswoman and the eldest child of former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, to dos Santos and his Russian-born first wife, Isabel was raised in Angola. She was educated in England and holds a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Kings College in London. She speaks five languages in addition to her native Portuguese. She married businessman and art collector Sindika Dokolo in 2002. The couple has three children.
Forbes magazine estimates dos Santos’ net worth in excess of $2 billion, making her Africa’s first female billionaire and one of only two black female billionaires in the world. (The other is Oprah Winfrey.) The BBC has named her one of the top 100 influential women in the world. Dos Santos’ holdings include multiple companies in Africa and Portugal, primarily in the technology, telecommunications, banking and real estate sectors. She is the chairman of UNITEL, the largest telecommunications company in Angola, and sits on the board of directors of Banco BIC, ZON Corporation and NOS Corporation.
AfricaCom is one of the largest technology events on the African continent. The annual event attracts top technology and telecommunications leaders as well as 450 business speakers, 500 exhibitors and more than 15,000 visitors. The event seeks to deepen the dialogue about technology issues, including Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, Fintech and Blockchain, and how these issues relate to Africa. Other speakers at the 2019 event included Rob Shuter, CEO of MTN; the Hon. Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams, Minister of Communications for The Republic of South Africa; and the Hon. Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Minister of Communications for the Republic of Ghana.
In #Africa can we have an e-commerce platform that competes with the biggest ones in the world? And have the same high-quality standards? I believe so. We Africans own our narrative. Watch the video where I share my vision on digital transformation at #AfricaCom pic.twitter.com/7iYYWXqZe9
— Isabel Dos Santos (@isabelaangola) November 15, 2019
The 2019 event was held November 12–14 in Cape Town, South Africa. AfricaCom 2020 is scheduled for November 10–12 in Cape Town at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Free passes to the event are available to attendees who work in related industries and who meet certain criteria. Free passes are also available for credentialed members of the press and for select visitors. For complete information on both past and future events, visit the AfricaCom website.