The Dutch beer giant likes to blow its own trumpet about the economic and social benefits it brings to Africa – but revelations of sexual harassment and low pay show a different picture.
By Olivier van Beemen
The first time Heineken amazed me was in Tunisia, in early 2011, when I was covering the Jasmine revolution and the fall of President Ben Ali for a Dutch business newspaper. During my reporting, I discovered that Heineken maintained close ties with the kleptocratic family clan that had ruled Tunisia for almost 25 years. It was not just the relationship itself that had me stunned – it was the fact that Heineken was brewing beer there at all. I knew the company was doing business all over the world, and I had some vague notion that it would have breweries outside the Netherlands, but I had never realised the scale: 165 breweries in more than 70 countries, including this north African autocracy.
The following year, I decided to begin work on a book about Heineken’s operations in Africa. When I told people in the Netherlands about my plan, I was mostly regaled with positive stories. A woman who had done an internship at Heineken told me she chose to apply to the company because of its corporate social responsibility, and she waxed lyrical about “the combination of idealism and no-nonsense business”. I went through Dutch news archives and found enthusiastic stories about the company’s work in Africa, with headlines like “Heineken is Helping”.