Heineken has made a lot of money in Africa © Max Pixel

Hold my beer: how it all went wrong for Heineken in Africa

What happens when globalisation is unleashed in poor countries
April 3, 2019

Heineken is a global powerhouse. The Dutch beer brewer is responsible for Amstel, Tiger, Desperados, Foster’s and Strongbow in Europe, as well as the Heineken brand itself. Overseas its operation extends across Asia and the Americas—as well as Africa, where it has 40 breweries in 16 countries.

Lauded in 2013 by Heineken CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer as “the international business world’s best kept secret,” Africa is central to the company’s success. Low production costs mean that beer sold there is almost 50 per cent more profitable. The company has fared well despite the corruption, political instability, health crises and poor infrastructure that bedevils many African nations.

But Dutch journalist Olivier van Beemen, the author of this well-researched and provocative book, has uncovered an astounding counter-story to the corporate spin. The company had been an “ardent supporter of a ‘white bloc’ of southern African countries including [apartheid-era] South Africa.” The picture was no better in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Nigeria and Burundi, where collusion with bad regimes has been the norm. He also reveals that the company used “beer promotion girls” in bars and clubs. They earned very little, had to drink between five and 10 bottles of beer and were often pressured into sex. In some cases, such as in the Congo, these advances came from Heineken staff.

Heineken in Africa is an almost perfect case study of what can go wrong when globalisation is unleashed in markets with huge financial potential but without the regulatory frameworks present in more stable parts of the world. The evidence Van Beemen has collected is vast and has forced Heineken to change its ways. But it is one of many thousands of western companies operating in Africa and it is surely not the only one meriting such a thorough investigation.

Heineken in Africa:  A Multinational Unleashed by Olivier van Beemen is published by Hurst (£20)