Heineken in Africa – Olivier van Beemen

Van Beemen Heineken-CMYKHeineken in Africa. A Multinational Unleashed is expected to be published early 2018 at Hurst Publishers (Catalogue here). Pre-order your copy here. It is a critical but balanced case study about the business practices of the Dutch brewer in Africa. The revelations in the book have led to parliamentary questions being asked in both the Dutch national assembly and the European Parliament, and to a documentary on Dutch television.

Leading commentators have written columns about it and a month after publication, Heineken dedicated a new page [removed as of December 2016] on its corporate website to the book, ‘growing together in Africa’, in an attempt to defend its policies. The book was nominated for the Lira Scherpenzeel Prijs for ‘groundbreaking international journalism’ and has been reprinted four times. It made news headlines in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Burundi.

The author, Olivier van Beemen, has been invited to give lectures and presentations at international conferences in different countries throughout Africa, Europe and Australia, and at prestigious locations in his home country, such as the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs and several universities. The Dutch book has become subject of a history course at the University of Amsterdam

About the book:

Heineken in Africa is the result of three years of thorough journalistic research, not only in the eleven African countries where Heineken has its own breweries and joint ventures, but also in the company’s archives and literature. The author has spoken to almost 300 sources within and around the company.

The book has revealed many controversial facts and practices that made headlines in the Netherlands. It shows how Heineken collaborates with dictators, authoritarian governments and an alleged war criminal, how it’s using a mysterious Belgian operating company for tax avoidance in African countries and that the company is tied to human rights violations and high level corruption. 

The scope of Heineken in Africa however goes beyond revelations and scandals. Van Beemen gives new insights and analyses about conducting business in Africa and the role of multinational companies in developing countries. The book is written in an accessible, fluent style and the country-specific chapters give lively observations on modern, urbanised Africa.

A major conclusion is that Heineken has succeeded in imposing its own narrative. The company presents Africa as a continent full of obstacles and barriers – such as unreliable infrastructure, a lack of rule of law and low levels of education – which make it difficult to do business and to find skilled employees.

While these obstacles do exist, the company fails to mention that they offer opportunities that outweigh the inconveniences. In most African countries, Heineken has unlimited possibilities for marketing and sponsorships and there are no restrictions on selling beer. The average low level of education means that marketing can more easily influence customers. Heineken has succeeded in associating its beer with positive characteristics, such as success, status, health, masculinity and physical power, despite its marketing code prohibiting such links.

Moreover, it’s generally easier in Africa than elsewhere to keep new competitors off the market, resulting in highly profitable mono- or duopolies in most countries. Africans often pay more for their beers than Europeans, not only relatively but in absolute prices. Thus, Heineken earns almost 50 percent more on a beer in Africa than the global average.

Heineken claims to have a positive impact on economic development and employment in Africa. Dutch politicians from across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Rutte, have praised the brewer on numerous occasions for this reason, and so has Queen Máxima. After investigation though, these claims turn out to be unfounded or even false. On balance, Heineken’s presence has hardly benefited Africa at all, and may in fact have been harmful. The limited number of jobs created doesn’t compensate for the ones destroyed in the traditional brewing sector, and Heineken never takes into account the damage alcohol abuse causes to the economies and societies where it operates.

Review in English: Heineken in Africa – the mirror

The book Heineken in Afrika has been called “the most valuable management book that I read in years”, which is quite remarkable, since it wasn’t meant to be a management book. Research journalist Olivier van Beemen has worked for three years and visited 11 African countries where Heineken owns breweries. The result is this impressive description of 80 years Heineken on the African continent. It holds a large variety of fascinating stories, underpinned with quotes, figures and facts. All in all, the book creates a feeling of awe, of admiration mixed with aversion. Heineken has been able to become part of the local landscape, yet finds itself faced with a continuous stream of practical, economic, ethical and cultural challenges. (…)

So naturally, Heineken is doing damage control. But after the smoke has cleared, what’s left is a clear mirror that Van Beemen has been able to piece together. By doing this research, collecting all these stories from many different countries and bringing them together in a very readable statement, Van Beemen has given Heineken, and other multinationals for that matter, an excellent opportunity. Based on the book, Van Tulder advices Heineken to “think some things over”. In fact, it’s a superb chance to look at the image that emerges, sharpen the moral compass and decide where it wants to go from here. (full review)

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