Isabel dos Santos. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JAMES OATWAY
Isabel dos Santos. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JAMES OATWAY

Zambia has awarded licences to start a fourth mobile network operator to a company, part-owned by Isabel Dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former president whose influence is waning in her home country.

Unitel International Holdings, in which Dos Santos owns a 25% stake, has pledged to invest more than $350m through a local unit and will compete with market leader MTN Group and Bharti Airtel.

The expansion comes less than four months after new Angola President João Lourenço announced an auction for a new operator in the oil-rich African nation and the part-privatisation of a state-owned telecommunications provider, challenging Unitel in its home market.

Dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman with a net worth of about $2.4bn, was stripped of her role as chair of Angola’s state-oil company last year as Lourenço sought to reduce the influence of the family of his predecessor. This month, she was forced to deny wrongdoing related to a transfer of $38.2m from the oil company Sonangol, following allegations by its chair, Carlos Saturnino.

For Zambia’s part, the country’s telecommunications regulator concluded after a two-year review that more competition is needed to improve services and lower prices. Two companies, including Unitel, expressed an interest in the licences, the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority said in a statement on Monday.

During the first half of 2017, active cellphone subscriptions in Zambia increased by 3.4% to 12.4-million, according to the finance ministry, compared with a population of about 16.5-million. Johannesburg-based MTN had about 48% of the market at the end of 2016.