Leaks reveal how McKinsey drives African climate agenda

Whistleblowers raise alarm over American consultancy’s growing influence in pushing carbon markets and developing energy transition plans

Leaks reveal how McKinsey drives African climate agenda

A delegate at the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi in September (Photo credit: Climate Centre)


Weeks before African leaders travelled to Nairobi for the continent’s first climate summit in September, climate justice groups wrote to Kenyan president William Ruto accusing consultancy firm McKinsey of “undue influence” on the summit’s agenda.  

The American firm had offered Ruto support in running the summit during a meeting with him and US ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman in late May, several sources told Climate Home News. 

A few days later, in early June, McKinsey wrote the concept note, which set the summit’s structure, and later drafted a paper to frame its outcome. 

“For a few weeks, it was their way or the highway,” a source close to the summit’s organisation told Climate Home. 

At the time, the Kenyan government said civil society accusations that Mckinsey had captured the summit were “extremely far from the truth”. McKinsey said the claims were “inaccurate”. 

But the backlash publicly exposed the influence McKinsey wields on Africa’s climate agenda – a position it would prefer to keep discreet. 

Leaked documents 

Now, Climate Home has obtained leaked documents and interviewed multiple sources, who have asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

They show how McKinsey dominates an ecosystem pushing carbon markets in Africa and processes designed to help governments develop long-term energy plans.  

This has been facilitated by McKinsey’s deep-rooted ties with Sustainable Energy For All (SEforAll), which is responsible for delivering on a 2030 sustainable development goal for everyone to have access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy; and the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP), which works to accelerate the energy transition.  

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Climate Home’s investigation reveals that SEforAll staff complained of CEO Damilola Ogunbiyi’s “preferential treatment” of McKinsey in a whistleblower report in 2020.

That year, SEforAll brought in the firm to facilitate a leadership retreat and develop the organisation’s business plan. At the time, SEforAll’s top management dismissed the allegation. 

Three years on, documents show how McKinsey has turned initial pro-bono work into lucrative contracts. 

A source close to SEforAll told Climate Home that McKinsey encountered hardly any competition and enjoyed “almost unrestricted access to the highest levels of the UN and national governments”. 

An SEforAll spokesperson said: “All SEforALL processes are followed at all times in the selection and engagement of any advisory services,” adding that any idea to the contrary was “baseless”.  

“Come to take over” 

African government insiders say McKinsey’s domination is problematic because it is pushing a top-down tunnel vision and non-Afro-centric view of how to address the continent’s climate and development challenges, which, if unquestioned, could constrain its ambition. 

“The role of McKinsey is highly problematic because they don’t come in a capacity support role, they come to take over,” said one source. 

There is a role for consultants to help governments and international organisations plug skill and knowledge gaps.

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But consultancies should advise “from the sidelines in a transparent way… rather than be allowed to run the show from the centre,” economist Mariana Mazzucato and researcher Rosie Collington write in their book about the consulting industry The Big Con.

Michael Marchant is head of investigations at Open Secrets, an NGO which advocates for private sector accountability and investigated McKinsey’s work in South Africa. 

He told Climate Home that despite receiving large amounts of public money, large consultancy firms like McKinsey “operate in secrecy and with almost no public accountability”.  

Heart of climate governance 

Yet, allowed in by governments, McKinsey has found a place at the heart of critical climate governance processes. France24 recently reported that McKinsey is pushing fossil fuel interests in its advisor role to the UAE, which will preside over the Cop28 climate talks in Dubai starting this week. 

The company’s client list includes some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, including Saudi Aramco, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell, according to court filings in the US, where McKinsey is being sued alongside Big Oil. McKinsey rejects the accusations.

In more recent years, McKinsey has advised polluters, including oil and gas companies, on how to use the carbon market to offset their emissions or raise revenue. A 2022 internal McKinsey document, seen by Climate Home, names Chevron and BP among clients of its carbon market business line.

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In Africa, the consultancy is behind a push to significantly grow the continent’s carbon offset offering, working closely with both GEAPP and SEforAll. 

In 2021, McKinsey supported the Rockefeller Foundation to design and establish GEAPP, according to a McKinsey document seen by Climate Home. The following year, GEAPP asked SEforAll to hire McKinsey to develop the African Carbon Market Initiative for $1.5 million as part of its grant to the organisation, Climate Home understands.  

Launched at Cop27 in Egypt, the initiative aims to scale carbon markets on the continent 19-fold by 2030.

While GEAPP and SEforAll publicly sponsored the initiative, McKinsey described its role in a sustainability report as “shaping and refining the initiative’s ambition” and “developing its strategy”. McKinsey’s concept note for the Africa Climate Summit elevated carbon markets to a core theme.

President Ruto appointed Joseph Ng’ang’a, GEAPP’s vice president of Africa, CEO of the summit. 

Climate campaigners denounced the focus on carbon markets as “a dangerous distraction” from African climate priorities and accused McKinsey of working to protect the interests of its western corporate clients. 

McKinsey has repeatedly dismissed these allegations, arguing there is no way to deliver emissions reductions without working with high-emitting industries and that it has rigorous policies to manage conflict of interests. 

A spokesperson for the company said “sustainability is a mission-critical priority for McKinsey”, which has “committed to rapidly scale this work to help clients in all industries reach net zero by 2050”. 

A GEAPP spokesperson said it was established “to unite a diverse range of partners” to rapidly facilitate a global shift towards renewable energy. In doing so, it “leverages a spectrum of… experts and consultants”. 

A close relationship  

McKinsey’s rapidly growing climate work in Africa has been facilitated by a close relationship between its African Sustainability Practice lead Adam Kendall and SEforAll’s CEO Ogunbiyi, who also serves as a UN special representative for sustainable energy. 

Before joining SEforAll, Ogunbiyi worked closely with Kendall, who led McKinsey’s natural gas practice in Lagos, Nigeria. He helped build the Nigerian vice president’s advisory power team and worked with the Rural Electrification Agency, which Ogunbiyi both headed. 

A McKinsey document describing its previous work for SEforAll said the firm “provided strategic support to Ms. Ogunbiyi during her transition” into her new CEO role, starting in January 2020.  

Weeks later, Kendall was invited to co-facilitate an SEforAll leadership retreat in London and subsequently developed the organisation’s 2021-2023 business plan, effectively for free. 

The same year, McKinsey seconded employee Ugo Nwadiani to SEforAll. An SEforAll recruitment note shows he was directly appointed Ogunbiyi’s special assistant. 

Whistleblower report  

An anonymous complaint prepared by several SEforAll staff raised concerns about these developments.  

A source said the complaint was backed widely among employees and sent to the organisation’s whistleblowing account and to one of its major funders. 

It described “a culture of fear” at SEforAll, and accused Ogunbiyi’s leadership of being “marked by favouritism”, including towards McKinsey. 

During the business planning process, McKinsey “had direct access to SEforALL financial information and organizational systems and processes” putting the company “in a privileged position” to apply for any future tender, it said.

It raised concerns that McKinsey had been the only firm asked to comment on terms of reference for work to update Nigeria’s integrated energy plan which SEforAll was seeking to contract out. McKinsey had worked with the Nigerian government on the first version of the plan the previous year. It was eventually hired for the job. 

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Responding to the complaint at the time, SEforAll’s management said it had strengthened procurement oversight and put in place mechanisms to help “create a climate of trust”.  

Since then, SEforAll has hired McKinsey to work on at least three of its five core initiatives in Africa: developing energy transition plans, scaling up the carbon market, and boosting renewable energy manufacturing capabilities 

Francesco Starace, chair of SEforAll’s governance board, said the board was satisfied with the outcome of a review process following the complaint. “We are confident with the integrity of the SEforALL procurement process and the leadership demonstrated by the CEO and the executive management team,” he said. 

McKinsey’s work in Nigeria  

McKinsey’s extensive work for SEforAll in the early days of Ogunbiyi’s leadership set it up for further opportunities.   

In Nigeria, McKinsey provided the modelling which underpins the country’s energy transition plan pro bono, working with SEforAll and the former government. A new government, which came into office in May, has warned that it will need a lot more investment to deliver

Chukwumerije Okereke, a Nigerian climate governance expert, said the exercise was a “cautionary tale”. The use of McKinsey-owned tools prevented robust scrutiny of the assumptions in the model, he told Climate Home. And the “closed door” process and lack of consultation may partly explain diminished political momentum to implement it, he added.  

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More recently, SEforAll and Kendall’s McKinsey team have sought funding to develop energy transition plans in up to ten developing countries, according to a 2021 joint concept note for funders, obtained by Climate Home.

With support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the pair has developed a plan for Ghana, and is working to do the same in Kenya and Barbados using a joint open-source model. In Kenya, draft plans, seen by Climate Home, would increase gas power capacity in the 2040s.

SEforAll told Climate Home these plans were procured through an open and transparent process, rigorously peer reviewed and subject to civil society consultations.  

For Okereke, international consultants can bring quality and gravitas to energy planning. “But it’s about the way they do it.”  

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