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.


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