Chapter 6Brewing in the BrousseThe Story of Heineken CEO Jean-François van Boxmeer

Photo of Jean-Francois van Boxmeer.

ZAIRE, 1994

In August of 1994, Bralima, the largest brewery in Bukavu, Eastern Zaire, didn't produce a single beer. Instead, thousands of bottles of serum left the brewery in trucks headed for the nearby city of Goma. There, hundreds of thousands of mostly Hutu refugees were packed together in rudimentary camps. They had fled the civil war in Rwanda, which had started in April of that year with a terrible genocide of Tutsis by Hutus. By the summer, the genocide had led to a Tutsi-led rebel army takeover of the country, forcing Hutus to seek refuge across the border from Zaire.

Now, in the precarious sanitary conditions of the camps, another disaster was threatening to strike the refugees: a cholera outbreak, killing up to half of those infected. Jean-François van Boxmeer, the newly appointed 32-year-old general manager of Heineken Zaire, believed he could help stop the killing. A few days earlier, he had rushed to his Bukavu brewery on a plane from the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, wanting to help stop the disease with whatever limited means he had as a brewer. Was it going to work? And how would the Heineken executives react, knowing he acted on his own initiative?


When I spoke to Jean-François in Amsterdam nearly 20 years later, the memory of the crises in Rwanda and Eastern ...

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