Crime and punishment

I have just finished reading “Heineken in Africa” by Olivier Van Beemen and would like to share my thoughts and opinions on his investigation of the alcohol industry.

To begin with, this is an impressive piece of work! According to the author, this book is based on more than five years of research and includes extensive study of archives, relevant literature and about 400 interview sources within or close to the company. The book covers the work of Heineken in thirteen different African countries, such as Rwanda, Burundi, South Africa, Sierra Leone and Mozambique to name a few.

Reading this odyssey of Heineken’s “work” in Africa was an interesting experience, to say the least, and shares some resemblance with the great novel “Crime and Punishment” by Dostojevskij. Why the resemblance? Well, both have murder, prostitution and alcoholism in common! All jokes aside though, as we will see throughout my blog post, this comparison will actually help us understand what type of book “Heineken in Africa” actually is.

The most striking resemblance is the number of “characters” involved. “Heineken in Africa” provides the perspectives of a great number people involved in, around or in relation to the company. Despite the impeccable writing by Van Beemen, this makes the “plot” take twists and turns which can leave the reader disoriented at times. An index in alphabetical order of all the people involved, with their position and whereabouts would have been much appreciated.

Familiar and surprising revelations

In short, I could describe the book as a tour guide to how Heineken does business in Africa. But that wouldn’t do it justice. By reading the book over the course of a few days, it makes a compelling case of convincing the reader that everything that is described in the book with regards to Heineken can’t be defined as isolated events or “a few rotten apples” within management or HR departments (which is how Heineken would like to describe it).

Rather, the events described in the book form a thick and coherent web that help us understand which kind of industry we are dealing with. But am I taking it too far by claiming this is a book about the alcohol industry, when it’s actually only about Heineken? Maybe Heineken is an exception to an otherwise benevolent industry?

Exposing Big Alcohol

Well, first of, we already have a great deal of examples about how different companies producing, distributing, selling and marketing alcohol use atrocious strategies and business practices no matter which company we are talking about. And secondly, what is interesting is that Heineken has been hailed as one of the examples of good and sustainable business practices in Africa where everyone from politicians to the United Nations have described Heineken in Africa (not referring to the book) as a success story.

But what has Heineken actually done? Oh, what haven’t they done! Although I could write pages of different examples that Olivier Van Beemen explores in the book, it would not do it justice. What I can say is that someone who has some familiarity with the work of the alcohol industry will probably recognize some tactics described in the book, such as using “promotion girls” as live bait for beer consumption, sexual harassment and prostitution.

Heineken Company Profile

And I can guarantee that even public health veterans and experienced agitators will find surprises as well! For example, at one point in the book, the incident of a dead Hutu president being stored in a beer cooler in a Heineken facility actually happened. Or the fact that Heineken played an important and active part in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. I am not making this up; this is not a new pitch for a Netflix special, this is just Heineken in Africa.

A sea of misery for who?

What is Heineken’s response to the contents of this book? As the diligent and honorable journalist van Beemen is, he has given Heineken all possibilities to give feedback to the manuscript and a chance to explain the reasons behind the actions and behaviors of the people featured in this book. Although this is dedicated more extensively in the book over several chapters, in a meeting with Van Beemen, a representative of Heineken answers one of his questions with the following statement:

I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that here at Heineken we want to improve things and want to contribute positively to the societies where we operate. We try to stick to all the rules, however difficult that may be. I am hurt that this is trivialized with remarks that suggest it is all about commerce and marketing to us. It is very difficult to be an island of perfection in a sea of misery, but please, do not doubt our sincerity.”

So, Heineken describes themselves as an “island of perfection” and Africa as the “sea of misery”. Africa. The place where the company has made billions by exploitation and tax avoidance, but now only seen as a sea of misery. I think it is very clear with regards to how Heineken see themselves in all of this.

“Such an enterprise becomes what it feeds: a predator”

To my surprise, this book doesn’t talk too much about the harms associated with alcohol use (although one chapter is dedicated to this specifically) but rather is a story about the inner workings of a large multinational company and how money (and dare I say capitalism?), corrupts people and makes moral considerations an afterthought.

There is one large difference between “Heineken in Africa” and “Crime and Punishment” by  Dostojevskij. In the Russian novel, the protagonist Raskolnikov murders two women and is then haunted by agonizing guilt and nightmares because of this. At the end of the book he finally turns himself in and is sentenced to years of hard labour in the heart of Siberia. In van Beemen’s book, Heineken plays the part of Raskolnikov, but unlike him Heineken seems to have a hard time to acknowledge, even less reconcile, the acts that the company has committed throughout the decades of producing and selling beer in Africa. This fact is neatly summarized in the book, when Van Beemen interviews a researcher named Fidel Bafilemba, specialized in multinational corporations. He puts it like this:

I don’t think brewers ever ask themselves moral questions. What is that Bralima [an alcohol producer, my comment] has given us over the years? How many people have jobs thanks to them? One thousand, maybe two. A drop in the ocean; we have well over 70 million people here. And what else? If your investments end up perpetuating a regime that is authoritarian, immoral and irresponsible, should you not reconsider your position?

I have never heard anyone in the beer industry complain about where their tax money goes. They pay millions and millions, but Congolese lives don’t improve as a result. Their conscience is clear; they do their business while they are lining the pockets of the predators that rule us. Such an enterprise becomes what it feeds: a predator.”

This book by Olivier Van Beemen is the result of countless hours of work and contributes greatly to shedding light on the strategies employed by the alcohol industry. Anyone remotely interested in this will find this book valuable.

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