Hong Kong-registered Trade Park Corporation claims to have the exclusive rights to cultivate cannabis in Cameroon, despite allegations that it is a scam operation. Although it raised millions of dollars from investors for a 200 ha agricultural park, there is nothing to show for the project.
Now four years after TPC signed its first papers with local officials, there is nothing to show for the project but angry investors, some stakes in the ground and a few dirt roads already being reclaimed by jungle.
“Trade Park could not honor its commitments,” Christian Mebiame Mfou’ou, mayor of Meyomessala, wrote to reporters recently when asked about the project.
TPC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of controversial UK company Formations House, and apparently raised US$50 million from investors for a special ‘agricultural park in Meyomessala, northern Cameroon in 2016.
Since then the company has been mired in controversy as a result of the Panama Papers leak in 2018, in which it was revealed that Formations House was behind a global web of businesses used by international crime gangs.
Nonetheless, TPC insists it has an exclusive cannabis cultivation license in Cameroon and that operations are going ahead – once more money is found!
What is Formation House?
Formation House was founded by Nadeem Khan, who died in 2015, shortly before facing trial on money laundering charges. NBC and other news organizations revealed a trove of leaked corporation records from Formations House, which specialized in creating offshore “shell companies” for clients. Its website claims the firm has incorporated more than 400,000 firms for its customers over the course of more than 15 years. The starting price of incorporating a shell company: $26.
Shortly before his death Khan established Trade Park Corporation, a Hong-Kong based subsidiary of Formations House which ultimately became controlled by his daughter, Charlotte Pawar. She pushed for cannabis projects in several African countries, including Madagascar, Angola, Mozambique, Gabon, São Tomé and Principe, Equatorial Guinea and Comoros, and eventually appeared to succeed in Cameroon.
NBC News published documents, drafts and PowerPoint presentations about the Cameroon project, detailed business plans, and email exchanges with potential investors and local officials from 2015 through 2017.
Trade Park said in one document it intended to “establish Cameroon as a destination for the Agricultural Pharmaceutical industry,” with a sprawling plantation that would feature facilities for distilling the plants to hemp oil, and efforts to attract tourists from around the world eager to see a cannabis farm.
Charlotte Pawar in Cameroon
In 2015, Pawar began signing papers with local officials in Cameroon for an enormous cannabis plantation, intended to slake the growing global demand for CBD oil.
Many of the major backers touted by Trade Park, including Bayer and the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, said they’d never heard of the project, and local residents are left to deal, empty-handed, with the fallout from a failed dream.
Pawar recently told journalists the project was still going ahead, and is “awaiting investment to proceed.”
In a follow-up response she added that Trade Park had “secured all government approvals and licences” to go forward, and had also set aside funds to pay for a feasibility study on its impact.
“This project would be implemented with the highest levels of environmental safety as possible,” Pawar said.
In the leaked business plans, Trade Park disclosed the project would require deforestation and the “removal” or “ethical rehoming of wildlife.” The acreage of the proposed farm is next to a protected rainforest preserve and is home to officially “vulnerable” species like leopards and officially endangered species such as western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees.
Trade Park documents are sprinkled with seductive statements such as this claim about the global market for cannabidiol oil: “Pound for pound, CBD oil is currently more valuable than gold.” The promise of a big payoff from exporting the oil extract from cannabis no doubt helped smooth the way for Trade Park to receive permission to grow the illegal crop, and a license to use a massive tract of rainforest.
Back in 2015 TPC CEO Charlotte Pawar told investors that Meyo AgriPark would be “world class export zone” that would “provide the optimal environment” for foreign investment by companies eager to capitalize on a $500 billion-a-year global agro-pharmaceutical market.
Where did the $50 million come form?
To raise the $50 million she said she needed, Pawar proceeded to court foreign investors with deep pockets. A December 2016 “projects update” includes loose commitments she claimed she got from potential investors including the global accounting firm PwC, the French investment bank Société Général, the African banking conglomerate Ecobank, and Net Oil, a Cameroonian petroleum exporter.
There is no evidence that any of those institutions actually invested, but emails show that some funds did flow into the project. While it’s unclear exactly how much money was spent, the total appears to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Pawar’s social media pages document two trips she took to Cameroon, first in April 2015 and again in January 2016. During the second trip, there is an image of her parked on a dirt road, photographing a forested area.
“The road to my new rainforest,” she commented on one photo on Instagram. For another, she wrote “I have now been to the rainforests of Cameroon to see all I now own … Its stunning and massive and literally in the middle of absolutely nowhere.”
Her social media posts also included a photo of her meeting the then-prime minister of Cameroon, Philémon Yang, in January 2016.
One of the first investors was a Kuwaiti businessman bought about $250,000 worth of shares in Trade Park in December 2015 as investment, but later he soured on the project. In a letter demanding a refund, his lawyers claimed he had been misled by the promise of “astoundingly spectacular” returns of $4.3 million in year three, and called the content of a promotional brochure “nothing less than science fiction.”
In an emailed response to questions from reporters, Pawar said the businessman’s “decision to invest was based on his verification of the project and its licences.”
Another businessman from Equatorial Guinea told reporters he transferred CFA 200 million (about $336,000) to the personal bank account of Meyomessala Mayor Mebiame Mfou’ou to pay for the land that had been designated for Meyo AgriPark. George Kaiafas said he sent the money on the understanding it would be distributed to local community — but was still awaiting documentation to prove his ownership.
Kaiafas initially said he would provide journalists with transaction records, but then stopped responding to questions. One 2017 email indicates he paid about $64,000 as a starting investment in the project.
Pawar and her colleagues also spent tens of thousands on the project, according to the leaked documents. Bank statements show she transferred 55,000 euros ($65,450) in two payments to International Business Company in December 2015 and March 2016. That company, which owned half of Trade Park Corporation Cameroon Limited together with Trade Park Corporation, was operated by Dougueli, Trade Park Cameroon’s general manager.
A month after receiving the second payment, Dougueli emailed Pawar to say he had to pay nearly $10,000 to a private company to obtain an operating license from Cameroon’s National Office of Free Industrial Zones (NOIFZ). NOIFZ had rejected their proposal, he said, citing a “bad market study,” a “low [weak] financial study” and a “weak business plan.” To resolve those issues, NOIFZ recommended asking “their private consulting firm” to “edit” the proposal — for a fee that Dougueli had to negotiate.
“I fought with great difficulty to settle after the editing of the project [t]he amount of 9,000 euros,” wrote Dougueli, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Later in 2016, Pawar’s business partner, Frederic Bard, told her that he had to send the mayor and company “100 k” to keep them patient, adding: “I need to feed the beast…”
Pawar responded saying it wouldn’t be the first such payment. “We paid them money initially, and that was tough for us but we did it, and then they asked for more and then said they had already spent it and needed it replacing,” she wrote. “I do think that even if I manage to find 100k now they will find more reasons to ask for more and make this [a] problem.”
In a January 2017 email to her co-workers Pawar estimated, “we have spent around 500k eur already” (about $550,000) on the project.
But the payments did not seem to satisfy Mayor Mebiame Mfou’ou who, according to an unsigned contract, may have stood to make 10 percent of license fees from the park. In September 2016, he contacted Dougueli to lambast Trade Park’s handling of the project, for which he had taken “enormous risks” and lobbied the “head of state, first lady, other senior government officials, and members of his local community.”
“You gave us commitments that you didn’t honor. It’s extremely frustrating,” he wrote. “I am worried for my political career and my freedom.”
Mebiame Mfou’ou did not respond to questions from journalists about whether he or the local government received any money. Adolphe Nkoumou, who is in charge of local agricultural projects, told reporters that as far as he knew nobody in the local government received even one franc.
The chief of Tatching 2, a village in Meyomessala region, said none of this money reached locals. “It was difficult because some said we had collected 85 million CFA ($142,000),” said Jean Paul Nkomo Nkomo.
Trade Park also promised to build an employee healthcare center and an academic institute, plus improve local infrastructure, according to an unsigned contract.
That was welcome news for local impoverished communities. Many roads in the area are only negotiable by motorcycle and people commonly hunt, fish and farm cassava and plantains to survive.
“They told us we were going to make a lot of profit if we started farming medicinal plants to sell to the white man. But the council has gone cold on it,” said one resident, who did not wish to be named, referring to the Meyomessala local government. “We don’t know what to think.”
Today, Meyo AgriPark exists only as a lofty proposal in aged pamphlets and business plans, as well as a scattering of stakes demarcating the boundaries of the proposed site.