Heineken in Africa: a troubling case study

Olivier van Beemen’s book puts a stain on the beer brewer.

I’ve been interested in how business is conducted in Africa since 2017.

I believe that the continent is either underappreciated or grossly misrepresented by people in the U.S. The continent is often viewed purely through the lens of poverty, safaris, or brutal dictators instead of business opportunities. I never understood why a continent with six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies — at least before COVID — receives so little attention at U.S. business schools. Faculty would consistently talk up how important future technologies like AI, 5G and robotics will be while Africa and its emerging tech sector doesn’t even warrant a mention. As stewards of a more globalized world, shouldn’t business students learn more about the rapid changes taking place across the continent? Is it an example of American exceptionalism to neglect discussion of business in less developed regions while extolling the virtues of mega corporations at home?

I find it shocking that Heineken in Africa: A Multinational Unleashed has zero reviews on Goodreads.

There have been few case studies of multinationals operating in Africa until now, although executives from Twitter, Facebook and the like may want to read this book and take notes. I first heard Olivier van Beemen, the book’s author, speak during a class on business and human rights at NYU last year. If it weren’t for his lecture, I probably wouldn’t have read it over a year later. The 250-page book is a rigorously researched text that illuminates the uncomfortable situations corporations may face on the continent. The book reads like a novel, and van Beemen weaves vivid stories and statistics together in a masterful way. While Heineken should not be used as a reflection of all foreign companies doing business in Africa, it can be taken as an example of what not to do.

Heineken in Africa: A Multinational Unleashed by Olivier van Beemen (Hurst, 2019)
A giant bottle of Heineken lager stands as an advertisement for the beer near the entrance to the Heineken brewery in Bujumbura, Burundi (Photograph by Martin Roemers/Panos)
Heineken and its beer brands in Africa (credit: Asoko Insight)

Perhaps the most worrisome thing about Heineken’s operations in Africa is how little they’ve been held accountable.

The shady marketing tactics it deploys in Africa is one major reason for their success. In country after country, Heineken has been able to capitalize on aggressive PR campaigns that glorify its corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives which claim to support local economies. They build schools in Rwanda with Heineken logos, create agricultural programs for local farmers in Burundi, and claim to have indirectly created over 632,000 jobs in Nigeria alone. When rigorously fact checked and investigated by van Beemen, however, these claims didn’t hold up.

Images from page 176 of the book

Despite van Beemen’s explosive work of journalism, the beer brand continues to remain popular globally and across Africa.

Heineken continues to perform well on the global market. Quarter 3 earnings beat market expectations, and despite a dip in sales and reports of layoffs, the company’s share price rose to a six-month high in early November. Unsurprisingly, Nigeria remained one of the company’s strongest markets in Q3. While the embattled former CEO van Boxmeer has moved on to a new position leading Vodafone, a toxic company culture and a trail of human rights abuses still stain Heineken to this day. This leaves me wondering: does the average investor care about Heineken’s activities in Africa, and will the beer brewer ever change its practices?

Sherpa Ventures | Bridges for Enterprise | Empowering startups in emerging markets