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Corporate responsibility and inclusion

Newsmaker Isabel dos Santos: “Many ways to solve Africa’s issues”

In a revealing interview, one of Africa's richest women opens up about the future of Angola, her company Sonangol and the future of the continent as a whole.

Since becoming chairwoman of the Angolan national oil company Sonangol in June 2016, Isabel dos Santos has made big changes at the firm. Replacing her father, former president of Angola Jose Eduardo dos Santos, as head of the business, she has appointed new board members in a company shakeup in hopes of bringing down oil production costs, revamping new exploration and production agreements, and significantly cutting costs.

Dos Santos joined Reuters global news editor Alessandra Galloni in the Thomson Reuters auditorium in Canary Wharf, London for the most recent Reuters Newsmaker event. The conversation covered her progress on the pledged reforms of Angola’s state oil firm, the recent accession of President Joao Lourenco after her father Angolas Dos Santos stepped down after 38 years at the helm, and the future of Angola’s economy as sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest economy.

A crowd gather to her Isabel dos Santos interviewed as part of Reuters Newsmaker event in London, Oct. 17, 2016.
A crowd gather to her Isabel dos Santos interviewed as part of Reuters Newsmaker event in London, Oct. 17, 2016.

Angolan Reform

Galloni began by highlighting Angola’s current state of transition with new president João Lourenço. The country is going through a change of power which brings about its own opportunities and risks. Focus turned to the peaceful transition of power which Dos Santos labeled a “great example for Africa…elections were free, elections were fair, and participation was high”, a claim that is not shared by the opposing political party UNITA. This is a new chapter for the country, and Dos Santos was clear that the government must focus on the diversification of its revenue-generating ventures, which are highly reliant on the oil industry.

“One of the big challenges is access to foreign currency because we are still very dependent on oil for currency as its our main export.”

Angola’s oil policy is drafted by the government and is aligned with its vision for the country’s future, which puts into question how much of continuity there is between the two. The Angolan government has a five-year program. of which the oil sector is part. “We are always planning and taking a long-term view. We are a company, not a ministry, and we need to have a concrete business plan…our plans go past 2030.”

Angola has a troubled past with corruption; most recent example being vice president Manuel Vicente, who is due to face corruption and money laundering charges.  The new president has vowed to fight corruption within Angola, which Dos Santos agreed with, seeing it as the responsibility of those in a leading position and with the ability to change something that should challenge issues like corruption and educate people. “Corruption is not particular to a country, or to a continent, it’s to humankind … it’s a personal issue.” An awkward exchange followed when asked about her father’s immunity from future prosecution, and more specifically why it was given. Dos Santos reiterated it was not just for the president and was part of a number of legislations that formed a wider legal framework, reiterating “he is a great leader for Africa, achieved a great deal.”

“When you look back at what was achieved in Angola, I am very proud. More than 10 million children in education. More universities than ever before, built more hospitals, more clinics…modern airports, we are able to receive planes from all over the world.”

A new era for Sonangol

Appointed as chief executive in June 2016, Dos Santos stated the “task was huge” in the robust reforms that she promised for Sonangol as its new chair. The challenge ahead of her included low oil prices of USD$25 a barrel and a 40 percent drop in company revenues leaving a large financial burden to overcome. Dos Santos did a full diagnosis of the company before making changes, addressing the workforce’s key competencies to make sure they have the right talent.

“It was very exciting when we were appointing new board members, we felt a sense of mission. Something we could give back…An exciting challenge.”

A key change she wanted to make was a culture shift within the organization: “More rigorous around spending; excellence in everything we did; more transparency to stakeholders and invested parties about what it had been doing.” Sonangol needs to remain increasingly efficient whilst also improving costs, which are key to increasing its revenue and profits.

Galloni pushed this transparency topic, and questioned what was the one thing the company could do to increase its transparency and corporate governance. Dos Santos retorted that this was the company’s main focus. “We have to run this company in a transparent manner” was her mission statement, with promises to be open about financial supporters and stakeholders, launching a website with all their services it is currently running for contractors to submit tenders, and create an ethics code to educate the right behavior within the company.

Isabel dos Santos, chairwoman of Sonangol, speaks with Reuters Global News editor Alessandra Galloni at a Newsmaker event in London.
Isabel dos Santos, chairwoman of Sonangol, speaks with Reuters Global News editor Alessandra Galloni at a Newsmaker event in London.

Angola and Sonangol

Galloni also questioned Dos Santos about her relationship both with the new president, as well as her father. Dos Santos confirmed that Sonangol was fully aligned and engaged with the government to overcome any difficulties with the Angolan economy. When asked whether this was a signal from the government that he wants her to be in the position for the long term and whether this is her goal, Dos Santos came back to say they are “designing a transformation for a company which is long and complex” and that she was here with a sense of mission and to lay foundations. “Once this company is on the right track, I think there will be no reason for me to remain, probably go back and build some more things somewhere else.”

“Family is a private matter, it is the people that are part of your life, who live, who you share….you do not share your professional life with your family, I work as an independent.”

When challenged on her relationship with her father, she was clear to distinguish between her family life and her business life. “The risks I’ve taken and businesses I have built [are] my own vision and by my own will.”

Business and Politics

Galloni’s last question to Dos Santos focused on the future of one of Africa’s most influential leaders. “Do you have a future in politics?” she asked point-blank. Dos Santos’ response: “My mission and truly my passion is to be an entrepreneur … I love building things … I believe there are many ways to solve Africa’s issues and development, creating jobs, creating opportunities and business is just as good as politics.”

“For the time being I want to be an entrepreneur,” she added.

A question-and-answer session with the audience followed, with questions on Sonangol’s stance on supply chain risks and modern slavery; details of its upstream and downstream projects; the need for anti-trust laws in Angola to prevent monopolies; and most importantly, Angola’s future ability to maintain levels of oil production which Dos Santos confirmed, with reserves and assets allowing them continue to at least 2025 without future exploration and development.

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