Heineken in Africa

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This book is a neat corrective to the dominant narrative that Africans have been in control since direct colonialism ended about 60 years ago. Therefore, if Africa is still backward and underdeveloped, it is the fault of Africans alone. Olivier Van Beemen demonstrates that it is the relationship of multinationals like Heineken with members of the African ruling class that upholds the dystopian dysfunction of African underdevelopment.

Heineken likes to present itself as an upstanding, ethical company contributing to the positive development of Africa. The reverse is the truth, according to Van Beemen. Heineken is involved in tax avoidance, sexual abuse, has links to genocide, and aids and abets high level governmental corruption among other things.

Furthermore, the profits that Heineken squeezes out of Africa are almost 50 percent above the global average. Beer costs more on the African continent in real terms than it does in Europe. The impression is given in the book that Africa is Heineken’s most profitable market. The profits from Africa sustain the company.

The book is mainly a history of the company, interspersed with case studies of its activities in various African countries. “Africans like their beer” it is said, and Heineken views itself as fulfilling a social need, making a profit and bringing much needed jobs.

The book explodes several myths. Heineken hardly makes a dent in the high levels of unemployment in African countries. All its brewing factories are automated, equipped with capital intensive technology requiring very few workers.

The other myth that the book explodes is Heineken’s much vaunted Corporate Social Responsibility programme. Heineken builds and donates schools to communities, but the schools are painted with the company’s corporate logo and colours — a situation that leads to underage drinking.

In Nigeria, the local representative of Heineken had a very cosy relationship with then president General Olusegun Obasanjo. When South Africa brewing giant SABMiller wished to penetrate the Nigerian market, the local representative was able to talk the government into placing administrative difficulties in SABMiller’s path, thwarting their attempt.

Another achievement of Heineken’s local representative in Nigeria was to reverse the government’s plans to increase excise duty, which would have hit Heineken hard. The local representative told the minister of finance not to do it. “It was as simple as that” he is reported as saying. More chilling is Heineken was given permission to use the strategic grain reserves put aside to be used in the event of famine.

There are many other case studies, equally as chilling: encouraging alcoholism in South Africa by promoting its brands in illegal bars in the townships; sales of beer and profits facilitating genocide in Rwanda; attempting to source raw materials locally in Sierra Leone skews agricultural production and intensifies child labour. There are testimonies of how sex and prostitution are used to enhance beer sales. Overall a rather dismal picture is painted of Heineken’s activities in Africa.

Despite the light that the book shines on these nefarious activities there are some drawbacks. I wish Van Beemen would have dwelt more on the negative aspects of beer consumption in Africa, especially since he admits that the native brew contains more vitamin B and C and potassium than the clear lager beer marketed by Heineken and fewer calories, alcohol, salt and sugar.

Clear beer has a higher sugar content and is connected to the increase of the prevalence of diabetes. This in a continent where healthcare systems have been ravaged by neoliberalism and the introduction of imperialist structural adjustment programmes is a ticking time bomb.