Dutch investigative journalist van Beemen spent six years examining the activities of Heineken in Africa, visiting 12 countries where the Dutch worldwide brewing giant has a majority shareholding. He delved into the company's archives and into literature, and spoke to some 400 sources within and around Heineken. His purpose was to show the darker side and provide a true-to-life image of the company that blows its own trumpet regarding its supposed African success story. Along the way he uncovered a mountain of dodgy business practices.

As the author tells it, the world's second-largest beer producer (after Anheuser-Busch InBev) is exploiting people, communities and countries. His shocking list includes support for apartheid, complicity in genocide, palling up with dictators and authoritarian regimes or the cruel rebels who opposed them, high-level corruption, tax avoidance using a mysterious Belgian operating company, aggressive political lobbying to obstruct, derail and undermine public health policy-making, flattening native opposition, unethical alcohol marketing such as beer promotion in schools, the “promotional girls” scheme that has been running for almost two decades and involves exploitation of young women and sexual abuse, serious problems with protecting workers' rights, severe issues with ensuring adequate workplace safety and misinformation about alcohol's effects.

Heineken, which was founded in 1864, is accused of using marketing activities as well as corporate social responsibility and partnership schemes such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria or the UN's Global Compact to portray itself as benevolent. In van Beemen's eyes these schemes help to whitewash the beer giant's appalling human rights track record and provide the company with strategic advantages in pursuit of increasing profits.

These profits that Heineken extracts from Africa, where it has been present for more than 60 years, are almost 50 percent above the global average, and beer costs more in some African countries than it does in Europe, while production costs are lower.

The Dutch version of “Heineken in Africa”, van Beemen's first book, was published in November 2015. Until then, Heineken had refused interviews with the author and elected not to read the manuscript he sent them before publication. The book caused a political storm and media furore, and was debated in the Dutch Parliament. In early 2017 Heineken decided to talk, and a number of senior management became available to the author for interview, including the chief executive officer.

Fresh tip-offs, revelations and insights came to light after the Dutch edition, to the benefit of this reworked, corrected and updated English version of the book. van Beemen tells us he uncovered an elaborate corruption case in Nigeria and was told that Heineken had used thousands of prostitutes there for a publicity campaign. He discovered that in Rwanda the company had been more entrenched in the 1994 genocide than he had thought. In Congo his research played a part in a financial settlement involving employees who had been made redundant during the civil war.

The English version also benefits from Heineken's belated response to critical reports and passages in the text with which it disagrees. The company says it has made big efforts to improve life on a continent beset with war, racial discrimination Aids, malaria, corruption and dictatorship. van Beemen, for his part, looks at the strategies the company had employed to defend itself and limit reputational damage.

Heineken accuses van Beemen of using selective sources, making mistakes and turning sweeping statements about incidents into generalities. They say he judged yesterday's events with today's values and was motivated by an agenda that was against multinational companies working in developing countries. 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.

The multinational claims to have a positive impact on economic development and employment in Africa. Dutch politicians from across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte, have praised the brewer on numerous occasions for this reason, and so has Queen Máxima. After investigation though, van Beemen sees these claims to be unfounded or even false.

On balance, Heineken's presence has hardly benefitted 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 doesn't take into account the damage alcohol abuse causes to the economies and societies where it operates.

But also, van Beemen points out, Africa offers opportunities that outweigh the inconveniences. In most 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. It's generally easier in Africa than elsewhere to keep new competitors off the market.

The journalist concedes that he made a couple of early mistakes but he holds his ground, as he got to know the company better and gained access to more and different sources: Heineken is accused of being guilty of structural bad practices, and basic assumptions that it has supposedly created thousands of jobs throughout the continent and that it benefits the local economy, for instance, prove to be illusory, he writes.

And it may not end here. van Beemen is left wondering what else the company might be hiding?


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