BOGOTÁ — The dragon fruit, or pitaya — that exotic fruit resembling a yellow or red flame and touted for its many health benefits — might just be the great new hope of Colombia's economy.
Though the worldwide market for pitaya has long been growing for several years in such countries as China, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Singapore, Brazil, France and the United Kingdom, other countries have only recently discovered the fruit — and those are the markets in Colombia's sights.
The only company in Colombia currently exporting pitaya to Asia is C.I. Dumax Agro. "Nobody else is doing it," says William Matamoros, the company manager, adding that Dumax has been exporting pitaya for a little over a year and now ships out as much as 20 tons, at $29 a kilogram. The firm is also exploring closer-to-home markets like Chile.
Before the fruit is sent to Japan and South Korea, it must be certified for consumption, which includes undergoing vapor heat treatment (VHT), a non-toxic insecticide treatment. "The VHT machine is expensive, you have to bring it from Japan and it needs further inspections on site and approval from the authorities of both countries," Matamoros said.
A new processing technique introduced by the firm is zeodratation, or dehydration using zeolites. "We do not use heat or cold or anything like that. It's a technology invented by a French chef, but we are the only ones with the patent in South America," says Matamoros.
The company dedicated 10 people to work for three months on building the five-meter long zeodratation machine, which will be ready in late November, to dry the first batch of dragon fruit headed for Japan. Later it will also be used to process mangos and pineapples.
The innovation was on display during a two-day Colombian export fair in Paris in late October, where exporters met with 150 potential buyers from Europe and Asia. The meeting was "a very important moment in Colombia's history," said Felipe Jaramillo, president of Colombia's export agency Procolombia. "The end of the war allows us to present a country offering new business opportunities. This is our showcase for Colombia, which gathers entrepreneurs who travel the world showing value-added products."
A soft cocoa
Between January and August 2017, the European Union was Colombia's second market for non-mining exports, after the United States. During this period, exports to the bloc grew by 10%, reaching $1.6 billion.
Trade with France over this period grew even more, at $78 million, up from a total of $69 million in 2016, not including oil and raw materials. Events surrounding the France-Colombia Year helped clinch trade deals, contributing to the growth.
Colombia was also the guest of honor in late October at the Paris Salon du Chocolat, the sector's premier fair, where 15 Colombian firms were hoping to expand their place in a market traditionally dominated by Europe.
It is a difficult market, according to Justiniano Suárez León, of the Suagu Group, which is dedicated to working with organic cocoa throughout its production chain, but Colombia has an advantage: "The chocolate originates in the Amazon basin, between Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, which differentiates us because ours is a soft cocoa, with a better aroma and flavor."
For this entrepreneur the key is in the transformation process, which gives Colombia a competitive edge. "We bring a very good, organic product, different from what they normally offer here. We want Colombian cocoa and chocolatiers to be recognized internationally," Suárez León said.
The various trade events have also presented opportunities for foreign buyers looking for innovative products. "I have made contacts with three very good entrepreneurs and might even work with one of them," said Melody, a Parisian textile designer and owner of the store Madame Melón, who has been traveling for the past seven years to indigenous communities in Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia to buy woven fabrics for her purses, backpacks and jewelry in an effort to promote fair trade.
"It's a way to fight against globalization and industrialization," she says. Every time she launches a new collection — she is about to launch her fifth — she spends two months living with indigenous communities who make her accessories in countries like Colombia, Guatemala or Mexico.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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