How an eco-pioneer from Torquay launched a miracle crop, risked a fortune, and ended up in a Cambodian prison

Gregg Fryett sold a green miracle to his investors – and now they could lose up to £32m

To those who believed his sales pitch, Gregg Fryett was the face of a green energy revolution. Not only could he produce a valuable biofuel from an obscure crop on marginal land in the tropics, but at the same time he could make his investors a fortune.

Today, the 43-year-old Briton’s fall from eco-soothsayer to suspected fraudster seemed complete as he found himself pursued by creditors while languishing in Cambodia’s squalid Prey Sar prison – where up to 22 men occupy a single cell – charged with forgery.

Mr Fryett was arrested as he drank coffee in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh by the country’s anti-corruption police, after arriving last weekend voluntarily to try to resolve a dispute over the ownership of a vast 6,000 hectare plantation to grow his miracle crop, called “jatropha”.

The decision to throw the businessman in jail is the latest blow to his scheme to cultivate jatropha, an oil-rich shrub native to central America, on a huge scale, after Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) last year announced it was investigating Mr Fryett’s companies, froze linked personal and business bank accounts, and appointed a receiver.

Around 2,000 investors, many of them British pensioners, poured up to £50,000 each into Mr Fryett’s main “green oil” company, Sustainable AgroEnergy Plc, through an unregulated investment vehicle, and face a potential loss of up to £32m.

A web of deals and investments in locations from the Philippines to America has now ensnared the Briton, who originates from Torquay, in an inter-continental legal dogfight, involving allegations that deals with members of Cambodian political and military elite have gone badly awry.

Lawyers representing Mr Fryett, who faces imprisonment for allegedly using a false land lease title, yesterday insisted that the father-of-two is the victim of a “political landgrab” and strongly denied the forgery allegation, describing the claim as “completely nonsensical”.

Tim Harris, of London law firm Bark & Co, said: “Mr Fryett went to Cambodia after seeking and receiving assurances from the authorities that he would be treated as a victim. He was arrested, we believe, after meeting the judge dealing with his case and whilst having coffee with another judge.

“He has been formally charged with the forgery of documentation, which is completely nonsensical.Why would he seek to defraud the very company he is trying to set up? This would seem to be a nakedly political attempt to grab back assets by individuals in Cambodia.”

It was all supposed to be very different for Mr Fryett, who had set up a trio of companies to sell his biofuel venture, guaranteeing a healthy return for investors..

Investors, who put up sums of between £20,000 and £50,000, were guaranteed a buy-back from the fifth year of their investment onwards.

Jatropha was touted as the answer to the dreams of carbon-neutral fuel pioneers by producing large yields of oil-rich seeds from poor soil, meaning it could be exploited on an industrial scale without interfering with the production or price of food crops. But such dreams have been dented with experts reporting that high yields can only be obtained from high-quality agricultural land and major investors, pulling out of pilot projects.

Mr Fryett pinpointed Cambodia as the most promising location for his would-be biofuel empire, supposedly securing his 6,000 hectares of land in the Banteay Meanchey province close to the Thai border for about $9m (£6m) and shipping in large quantities agricultural equipment as well as building houses and a school for workers and their children.

The businessman insists significant quantities of jatropha were planted and being harvested, although The Independent understands one aspect of the SFO investigation is whether the crop was being exploited at a commercial level.

Problems deepened for Mr Fryett at the beginning of this year when employees at a Cambodian subsidiary administering the plantation were arrested on forgery charges. The Independent understands that the plantation now stands uncultivated and is falling into ruin.

In February, the Briton wrote to the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, claiming that he had fallen foul of “considerable issues” in buying land from a company owned by the wife of a prominent politician, and an intermediary company owned by a senior officer in the Cambodian military.

Mr Fryett, who claims that the SFO ignored a blueprint to save his business, wrote: “We have paid for the land and the development of the land... but have not received title to the land.”

All of which will be little comfort to the Briton’s investors who are waiting to see whether they will see the return of anything more than a small part of their original investment.

In a statement, the SFO said: “We are investigating the activities of Sustainable AgroEnergy Plc in connection with selling ‘bio-fuel’ investment products.”

Mr Harris said he was working to try to secure Mr Fryett’s release by the Cambodian authorities. He said: “We would strongly argue that if he has any questions to face, then it is back here in front of the British authorities.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor