Alumnus Helps ‘Brew’ a Better World

"Gene" Ubalijoro, Heineken

#HoyasforOthers

Eugene "Gene" Ubalijoro (B'86) believes that sustainability as a business imperative can affect great positive change on not only businesses but on the entire world.

 

At the age of 11, Eugene Ubalijoro (B'86) visited a Coca-Cola bottling factory and was so impressed that he knew right away that he would like to work in the beverage industry when he grew up.

For many of us, childhood dreams often fall by the wayside and our interests change as we grow. Yet, this was not the case for Ubalijoro.

After completing his double major in finance and international management at the McDonough School of Business, Ubalijoro went to work in Paris, France in the banking sector. He soon discovered, though, that finance wasn't really his cup of tea. He decided to move to Canada to obtain his MBA at l'Université de Sherbrooke. At that time, the microbrewery industry was booming and he seized an opportunity to work on a project to create a microbrewery in Montreal.

He had gotten quite far along in his planning when, while on a trip to visit his parents in Rwanda, he ran into a person who worked for Heineken. The executive was so impressed with Ubalijoro and his plans that he asked him to come and work for Heineken. For Ubalijoro, this was a huge deal, since at that time there weren't any African executives at the management level.

He began work at Heineken as a trainee, first in his home country of Rwanda for six months and then in Paris for another six months, followed by a one-year stint on the French island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, and finally in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, 26 years later, he is the managing director of the Caribbean and Americas Export region for Heineken and is responsible for more than 50 markets including Canada, the Caribbean, and South America which he manages out of Miami.

Heineken's local sourcing program has had a positive impact on the lives of more than 18,000 farmers and their families.

Investing in People
In 2010, when a devastating earthquake shook the country of Haiti, Ubalijoro was reminded of the destruction he saw in his home country during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Hundreds of thousands were dead, millions were displaced, and important buildings were left in ruins.

The people of Haiti were facing a monumental rebuilding effort after the earthquake, and Ubalijoro was familiar with the massive amount of work it takes to help get people and businesses back to a place of self-sustainability after such a tragedy.

Having managed Heineken's programs to sustainably source raw goods from local farmers in Rwanda and other countries, Ubalijoro knew what a huge impact such a business model could have for the people of Haiti. In 2010, he worked with Heineken to help launch Brewing a Better Future (now known as Brewing a Better World), a global program designed with three key goals:

  • To improve environmental impact of brands and business
  • To empower the people we work with and the local societies where we operate
  • To impact positively the role of beer in society

A major part of the Brewing a Better World (BBW) mission in Haiti included Heineken's 2011 purchase of Brasserie Nationale d'Haiti (Brana), the bottling plant and brewery that produces Haiti's only beer, Prestige, as well as some non-alcoholic beverages. In addition to providing local jobs, the BBW program worked to connect with local communities, most notably through the sourcing of key goods used in the manufacturing of the beer from local farmers, guaranteeing them margins which would otherwise be uncertain and constantly changing.

sorghum farmers
Heineken supports programs in Haiti that help sorghum farmers learn increase their yield and care for and manage crops. Photo via Bloomberg.com

For example, sorghum grain, used in brewing beer, is sourced locally in Haiti. By purchasing the grain from local farmers, the company not only supports the people in the country in which it operates, but also cut its own costs in the areas of shipping, taxes, and currency exchange. The result has been a huge, positive impact on the lives of more than 18,000 farmers and their families.

Upon learning about the BBW program's work in Haiti, President Bill Clinton (F'68) came to the brewery personally to see what they were doing and to partner as part of the Clinton Foundation's Clinton Global Initiative.

Additionally, the company partners with USAID, as well as a number of NGOs that help train the farmers in not only producing the crops but also in managing stocks and value chains, and working with banks. This helps them become better managers and create revenue chains so that they are able to support their families. Some are able to start other businesses on the side as well. The government is also supportive because agriculture is a key driver for the country now.

Ubalijoro explains that he was able to be so confident in the success of this program because this business model has already been successful in various countries in Africa for almost 30 years. In Nigeria, Heineken uses nearly 60 percent local sorghum in the production of local brands. In Rwanda they use maize. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they source rice sustainably; in Ethiopia, locally grown wheat. In each area, the BBW program creates a link between the company, the communities where it manufactures, and the people who work there.

seed selection
Ethiopian farmers sift through crop in their seed selection process. Photo via Heineken.com.

"The important thing about local sourcing is that it really makes us relevant in the markets in which we operate," explained Ubalijoro during a 2012 talk on a panel for the Clinton Global Initiative on "Integrating Social and Environmental Value into Core Business Commitment."

Since 2012, Bloomberg.com reports, "Heineken has invested $100 million to modernize the facility and the Brana factory contributes 4 percent of Haiti's tax revenue." Its aim is to get at least 50 percent of main raw materials from sustainable sources by 2020.

The effect of such a massive effort is not at all lost on Ubalijoro.

"It gives me great personal satisfaction to go back and see how well it's doing and to see how transformative these projects are," he says. "We are on a roadmap to becoming the world's greenest brewer and it makes me quite proud to have had a hand in that."

Read more about the Brewing a Better World program here.