According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a “muckraker,” or purveyor of muckrak- ing journalism (Muckraker, 2019), was a term used pejoratively by President Theodore Roosevelt, but which generally had a positive connotation among the public at large. The muckrakers were the journalists who, in the words of the Encyclopedia, “provided detailed, accurate journalistic accounts of the political and economic corruption and social hardships caused by the power of big business in a rapidly industrializing United States.” The better known of these journalists include legends such as Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker— Ida Tarbell’s writings are, for example, generally regarded as responsible for the break-up of the Standard Oil trust. While the muckraker movement of that time had largely disappeared between 1910 and 1912, the tradition of exposing the power of large corporations has not. The best known of these, John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, analyzed the uses and abuses of corporate power in a number of books, including The New Industrial State (1967) and Economics and the Public Purpose (1973), while Van Beemen himself cites more modern authors who have analyzed corporates both in a positive light (e.g., Bais and Huijser, 2005) and with a focus on the actual or potential damage that they can do (e.g., Bakan, 2004). So what shade of muckraking is Heineken in Africa, given its highly critical approach? Does it represent a fair picture of Heineken’s footprint in Africa?
Van Beemen’s book is divided into 15 chapters plus a Postscript and an Epilogue. The Chapters alternate: eight chapters on individual country operations (Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, and Mozambique) and seven thematic chapters (the conquest of Africa, African beer wars, etc.)
Heineken itself does not think the book is very fair. In a communication with the editor of this Journal, they say that “We have made it a priority to carefully consider the content of this book, and we do not agree with many of the claims the author makes.” While accepting that they make mistakes, they object to being typecast as “… a company where misbehavior is systemic…” However, the reader (or at least this reader) needs to place a story such as this in context with questions such as: Is it realistic? Is it fair? Is it a good read?
First, there is a lot of thorough homework that went into the book (and recall that Heineken itself only disagrees with MANY of the claims made by the author, not all of them), and in the process we learn a lot about the African continent, about corporate life in Africa, and about Heineken. Where the first two are concerned, I take the author’s word, while keeping a pinch of salt at hand regarding what he says about Heineken itself. Africa is a continent of infinite variety, and generaliza- tions should be vigorously discouraged: this book hardly makes that mistake, follow- ing Heineken in the numerous countries where it has been operating for up to 100 years (but not directly in South Africa during the apartheid years).
Second, Africa is a difficult place to work in for a number of reasons. This is not a generalization, especially when one regards the logistics of transporting and handling bottles of beer around in a neighborhood with poor infrastructure and a notorious amount of red tape, and the author, in my opinion, does not give enough credit to these difficulties. What, after all, do you do when it takes a year to get a visa to get into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or when the Ethiopian government bans beer advertising and announces that it is going to increase excise duties on beer by more than 45% (Yewondwossen, 2019) on the advice of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund?
He also does not give sufficient credit to truths such as the fact that running a big cor- poration is a sufficiently difficult challenge, while running one in difficult markets such as India and much of the African continent poses real challenges. Of course, saying this could become an excuse for corrupt business practices, but it is no less real as a challenge to a legitimate business such as selling beer to the citizenry of the continent. How else does one explain the sustainability of more than 100 years of engagement? To my mind only a prohibitionist would argue that the countries within which Heineken has oper- ated would have been better off if this particular corporate citizen had not engaged on the continent. After all, even if the Mozambican government has subsidized Heineken’s entry into their market with a (lengthy) tax holiday it is paying salaries and wages, and will (hopefully) eventually pay taxes. And it is a fair stretch of the imag- ination to take the blame for the genocide in Rwanda away from the superpowers and the United Nations, and lay it at the feet of Heineken. Could they have done better under those circumstances? Of course they could, but so could everybody else.
It is probably also fair to argue that Van Beemen does not recognize (or at least is not explicit about) the fact that beer is itself difficult to work with, although one must be careful: a company that has brewed and sold beer for as long as Heineken will have internalized these difficulties by now. Nevertheless, combine the fact that it is a fast moving consumer good with a relatively low specific (value to weight) ratio, and that consumers generally have very specific taste and brand preferences based on the beers that they grew up with, and you have a case study in the difficulties of operating in non-traditional markets with non-traditional products.
In short, the book would have benefited with a chapter or two that analyzes features of the individual and collective markets in which Heineken operates, and that analyzes the implications of working with a product with the particular charac- teristics of beer.
Finally, the chapter on South Africa resonates to this reviewer, and is a good example of another lacunae in the book. One can argue that Heineken’s eventual direct entry in the South African market had positive spin-offs. The South African market was long dominated by South African Breweries, which, in Van Beemen’s words, is “the jewel in the crown of South African industry,” a sentiment that many would share, but a near-monopoly nonetheless. Heineken brought competition (also in Mozambique), forcing SAB to change its supply chain management practices, and arguably resulting in a more internationally competitive barley industry. The more general point here is that, like all corporates, Heineken has done good things, even if some of that has been done under duress: from governments and temperance pressures, from environmental- ists, from labor unions, etc., and that this book hardly mentions any of these initiatives.
These are some of the lacunae that a reviewer is expected to identify. However, they do not detract from the fact that this is a good and entertaining read, that it challenges its readers to dig below the surface, and that is has in all probability changed at least some of the business practices of this particular African corporate citizen. It should also not detract from the real examples of corporate mismanage- ment and corporate damage that has been done to countries and individuals by Heineken. The story of the “promotion girls” generally, and one particular promo- tion girl and the current CEO of Heineken International that is told in the Epilogue bears witness to the size of the footprint of this particular corporate elephant. Africa’s economies are on the move, and multinational corporations, whether homegrown or foreign, and whether established on the continent or new, are the name of the game. We need more books such as this to educate governments on what to look out for, but we also need more contextually balanced analyses.