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Heroes Among Men

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IIt’s a sunny Thursday, and I am at the Mobile Military Health Formation of the SA Military Health Service in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, to meet Limpopo-born Molatelo Nkoana, a 31-year-old woman who has dodged more bullets than most.

Nkoana’s running a little late, but then she arrives, sallying into the boardroom. She is on duty and in uniform, and proceeds to tell me about her life and the career she almost embarked on.

After completing her secondary education, Nkoana says she first went on to study and train as a nurse. But that wasn’t to last long; she gave it up midway – to join the military, a decision she would never regret.

“Basically, it was about the money, I was young and wasn’t getting enough money, so I went on the market,” says Nkoana.

The enthusiastic 22-year-old applied, and was recruited three months later, reporting to the Thaba Tshwane military base in Pretoria for basic training. She also trained in Kimberly, Bloemfontein and the Western Cape.

Nkoana had thought only the physically fit could join the military, but soon discovered it offered multiple careers one could explore. With her nursing background and experience, Nkoana chose to be a paramedic.

In March 2013, Nkoana was one of the 200 soldiers of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) selected to go to the Central African Republic (CAR) as part of South Africa’s peace-keeping mission there.

They would go on to fight a series of battles outside Bangui in the CAR. And Nkoana was the only woman on the frontline.

Michel Djotodia, leader of the rebel alliance, Seleka, had declared himself the new president of CAR and forced the then serving president, François Bozizé, out of the country.

It wasn’t going to be an easy task for the SANDF.

Nkoana takes me back to noon on that fateful Friday on March 22, 2013 when she first spotted the rebels; she remembers it all like it was yesterday.

She literally transports me to CAR with her vivid detailing of the series of events that unfolded. As she relates this story of death and danger, I hear the bullets, the gunshots and the rebels roar; I see the ravages of war in CAR.

Nkoana was amongst the first to see the rebels attack.

“We saw a civilian running away from those people, the rebels. I was at the gate of the base’s duty room. I ran to the sick-bay as a medic and told the people that the rebels are coming, the rebels are coming.”

When she reported it, nobody believed her. But she persisted, proceeding to gather her bulletproof vest, helmet, and weapon.

Her fellow soldiers only believed her when the Officer Commander (OC) ordered them to prepare and check what was happening outside the base. He tasked a team from the special force.

Around 5PM, this team was ambushed by the rebels, but they fought back tenaciously, and the rebels fled.

Three men of the special force team returned injured, one shot in the chest, the other had sustained a fracture in his femur and the third was wounded.

For the first time, the base knew it was rough outside.

“As medic personnel, we took them to civilian hospitals outside to get other doctors to help us,” recalls Nkoana.

Around 10PM the following day, the rebels came back again firing bombs. The SANDF could hear the entire din from their base. The Sergeant Major asked Nkoana to go with them to replenish food for the soldiers who had been on night vigil.

She grabbed her medical bag, helmet, bulletproof vest, weapon and left with the men, not hesitating for a minute.

It was around 12PM, when she along with the others drove 15-20 kilometers to the location of the stranded soldiers; it was quiet when they got there, but as soon as the rebels saw the SANDF vehicles, they started shooting again.

“We went out of the car and took cover, and then we started shooting back. While fighting, I managed to get one of the guys that was injured and suggested I take him back to the base because he could not run, fight or do anything,” she says.

The OC opted otherwise and Nkoana and the injured men had to wait even as the bullets rained over their heads.

At 5PM, as they were heading back to camp, the squad was ambushed again. This was when a number of lives were lost, says Nkoana, for the first time sounding emotional.

They did what they did before: stop the vehicle, step out and take cover.

As Nkoana was taking cover, one of the soldiers had been shot in both legs and was screaming out for her. She bandaged him but the chaos was far from over; yet another soldier was calling for one of the two medics that were there. He had almost missed a bullet but it had grazed his neck.

By then, Nkoana and the other medic could see dead bodies all around them. The injured soldiers shouted to them to leave because they were going to die.

“We told them we can’t leave. We are still alive and we can at least take cover with you. Let’s move to a safer place; the guy that was shot in the legs said he couldn’t walk and we should leave him there.”

The team refused and carried him to safety.

Around midnight, the OC called from the base asking for Nkoana. Many of the soldiers were already back at the base, but the young woman had stayed on with the other fighters.

“When they called, I switched off my phone because it was loud and we could hear the voices of the rebels from where we were hiding.

“I switched the phone back on and sent a message telling them ‘we are here, we are hiding, we’ve got two patients and we cannot get out of this cover’.”

Nkoana had full faith she was going to return home to her son in Senwabarwana, her hometown in South Africa’s Limpopo province. It kept her alive.

She thought she would be running on foot back to the camp because there was nothing that could rescue them.

Many soldiers died, but many of the rebels also died, so there was not going to be any mercy towards the SANDF.

Nkoana then received a text advising her and her patients to remain in hiding and stay calm. Around 4AM, she received a call asking if they were still undercover; they were then instructed to somehow make their way to the airport.

“The commander of the rebels was requesting the SANDF to go back to their country,” she says.

But Nkoana and the injured soldiers had to travel another 15 kilometers to the airport; she was still unsure of their safety. Their hideout was next to a tar-road and the rebels were driving up and down firing bullets into the sky.

A peace agreement had been signed, so the soldiers could go back to camp; get their belongings and head home to safety.

“[But] we were not sure the people in the streets knew of the peace agreement because if they see us they will shoot us; the agreements were done at the base and not in the streets,” says Nkoana.

They refused to come out of hiding.

They heard the Casspir (armed ambulance) that was sent to fetch them and the bodies of the dead soldiers, but they were still unsure if it was safe to surface. The vehicle went up and down, back and forth, looking for them.

“Around 7AM, the next day, we decided to go. They sent me a message to just surrender; I then told the guys ‘the Major says we should surrender’. I was the Corporal by then and the guys asked if we should shoot. I told them ‘no, because if you shoot one bullet, they will kill all of us’.”

Nkoana took command of the situation, complying with her superiors at the base.

The drama didn’t end there though.

Just as they got on to the road, the rebels came after them and took their weapons, bulletproof vests, ammunition and they were instructed to lie down. They then had to stand up and walk in a single file not knowing where they were being taken.

On the way, they climbed on to a bakkie (pickup truck) driven by other rebels which took them to their base. The soldiers at the base had started packing, and they had to pack up too. They were all then taken to the airport to head back home to South Africa. Finally, it was all over.

Nkoana was a 27-year-old woman who defied death at the hands of the rebels. She was honored with a bravery medal, invited to the opening of Parliament in South Africa in 2014 and was given the Sword Of Peace.

Like Nkoana, another South African woman was also honored for her bravery fleeing the rebels in CAR, with an equivalent of R3 million ($323,000 at the time) supporting the mission, in her bag.

Susette Gates, a mother of two sons, currently living in Pretoria, was deployed as the financial officer of the South African mission in CAR in charge of payroll. Before being employed by the SANDF, she had been a hairdresser, she says, laughing, when she speaks to us.

Like most people looking for jobs, she had applied for an open post at the Wonderboom military base and been accepted; she continues to work here.

I meet her at this base – she’s not in uniform – and in her own office adorned with family portraits, certificates and medals.

She was the only other woman besides Nkoana selected for the CAR mission. Those fearful moments in CAR are forever etched in her memory.

When the rebels were attacking the SANDF, Gates was watching a horror movie on her laptop at the base. Little did she know the horrors unfolding around her.

Ironically, she was informed about the chaos in CAR on the phone by her sister in South Africa. Only then did she realize there was no electricity and people had left their homes at the camp.

She called out to everyone but was the only one left. She was later relocated to another place where she spent the night.

“The next morning, I went back to get my belongings. The next thing the rebels were in the base and they took everything, they even took the cars,” she says.

“If they could grab food, clothes whatever. I had my money with me; they opened my bag and asked what it was. I told them it was clothes and asked if I could keep it, but the bag of money was under the clothes.”

Gates was released and managed to get away with the R3 million; the money she had hidden under her clothes and that belonged to the SANDF.

The trip to the airport was grim because all she saw was a dry and dirty town, gunshots going off in the background. On the flight back home, she knew there were dead bodies of colleagues on the plane. Gates almost kissed the ground when she landed in South Africa, she says.

Both these women returned as heroes and were honored by South Africa’s Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula in 2014. Of the 185 soldiers who survived the war, the two women stood out amongst the men. Today, there are other women fighting the rebels in the CAR like they did, risking their lives and saving the lives of the men around them.

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How LinkedIn Is Looking To Help Close The Ever-Growing Skills Gap

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As the job market has evolved, so too have the skills required of seekers. But when 75% of human resources professionals say a skills shortage has made recruiting particularly challenging in recent months, it would appear as though the workforce hasn’t quite kept pace. Now LinkedIn is stepping in to help close the gap.

On Tuesday, the professional social network announced the launch of a “Skills Assessments” tool, through which users can put their knowledge to the test. Those who pass are given the opportunity to display a badge that reads “passed” next to the skill on their profile pages, a validation of sorts that LinkedIn hopes will encourage skills development among its users and help better match potential employees with the right employers.  

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“We see an evolving labor market and much more sophistication in how recruiters and hiring managers look for skills. … We also see a changing learning market,” says Hari Srinivasan, senior director of product management at LinkedIn Learning. “The combination of those two made us excited about changing our opportunity marketplace to make the hiring side and the learning side work better together.”

So how exactly does it work? Let’s say a user wants to showcase her proficiency in Microsoft Excel. Rather than simply listing “Excel” in the skills section of her profile, she can take a multiple-choice test to demonstrate the extent to which she is an expert.

If she aces the test, not only will a badge verifying her aptitude will appear on her profile, but she will be more likely to surface in searches by recruiters, who can search for candidates by skill in the same way they might do so by college or employer. If she fails, she can take the test again, but she’ll have to wait a few months—plenty of time to develop her skillset.   

The tool has been in beta mode since March, and while just 2 million people have used it—a mere fraction of LinkedIn’s 630 million members—early results seem promising. According to LinkedIn, members who’ve completed skills assessments have been nearly 30% more likely to land jobs than their counterparts who did not take the tests.

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“This has been a really good way for members to represent what they know, what they are good at,” says Emrecan Dogan, LinkedIn group product manager.

While new to LinkedIn, the practice of assessing candidates’ skills has been a standard among hiring managers for decades. But when research commissioned by LinkedIn revealed that 69% of employees feel that skills have become more important to recruiters than education, LinkedIn felt as though this was the time to give job seekers the opportunity to prove themselves from the get-go.

As important as the hard skills that members can put to the test through LinkedIn’s new tool may be, Dawn Fay, senior district president at recruiting firm Robert Half, encourages those on both side of the job search not to forget the importance of soft skills. “You wouldn’t want to rule somebody in or out just based on how they did on one particular skill assessment,” she says.

“Have another data point that you can use, question people about how they did on something and see if it’s something that can feed into the puzzle to find out if somebody is going to be a good fit.”

-Samantha Todd; Forbes

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Why The High Number Of Employees Quitting Reveals A Strong Job Market

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While recession fears may be looming in the minds of some, new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the economy and job market may actually be strengthening.

The quits rate—or the percentage of all employees who quit during a given month—rose to 2.4% in July, according to the BLS’s Jobs Openings and Labor Turnover report, released Tuesday. That translates to 3.6 million people who voluntarily left their jobs in July.

This is the highest the quits rate has been since April 2001, just five months after the Labor Department began tracking it. According to Nick Bunker, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, the quits rate tends to be a reflection of the state of the economy.

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“The level of the quits rate really is a sign of how strong the labor market is,” he says. “If you look at the quits rate over time, it really drops quite a bit when the labor market gets weak. During the recession it was quite low, and now it’s picked up.”

The monthly jobs report, released last week, revealed that the economy gained 130,000 jobs in August, which is 20,000 less than expected, and just a few weeks earlier, the BLS issued a correction stating that it had overestimated by 501,000 how many jobs had been added to the market in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019. Yet despite all that, employees still seem to have confidence in the job market.Today In: Leadership

The quits level, according to the BLS, increased in the private sector by 127,000 for July but was little changed in government. Healthcare and social assistance saw an uptick in departures to the tune of 54,000 workers, while the federal government saw a rise of 3,000.

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The July quits rate in construction was 2.4%, while the number in trade, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality were 2.6%, 3.1% and 4.8%, respectively. Bunker of Indeed says that the industries that tend to see the highest rate of departuresare those where pay is relatively low, such as leisure and hospitality. An unknown is whether employees are quitting these jobs to go to a new industry or whether they’re leaving for another job in the same industry. Either could be the case, says Bunker.

In a recently published article on the industries seeing the most worker departures, Bunker attributes the uptick to two factors—the strong labor market and faster wage growth in the industries concerned: “A stronger labor market means employers must fill more openings from the ranks of the already employed, who have to quit their jobs, instead of hiring jobless workers. Similarly, faster wage growth in an industry signals workers that opportunities abound and they might get higher pay by taking a new job.”

Even so, recession fears still dominate headlines. According to Bunker, the data shows that when a recession hits, employers pull back on hiring and workers don’t have the opportunity to find new jobs. Thus, workers feel less confident and are less likely to quit.

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“As the labor market gets stronger, there’s more opportunities for workers who already have jobs. So they quit to go to new jobs or they quit in the hopes of getting new jobs again,” Bunker says. He also notes that recession fears may have little to do with the job market, instead stemming from what is happening in the financial markets, international relations or Washington, D.C.

So what does the BLS report say about the job market? “Taking this report as a whole, it’s indicating that the labor market is still quite strong, but then we lost momentum,” Bunker says. While workers are quitting their jobs, he says that employers are pulling back on the pace at which they’re adding jobs. “While things are quite good right now and workers are taking advantage of that,” he notes, “those opportunities moving forward might be fewer and fewer if the trend keeps up.”

-Samantha Todd; Forbes

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No Seat At The Global Table For Indigenous African Cuisine

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Gastronomic tourism based on African food could easily increase and create new value chains that unlock billions in untapped wealth for the continent, but what is stopping us?


Food and tourism are an integral part of most economies, globally. Food is undeniably a core part of all cultures and an increasingly important attraction for tourists. To satisfy their wanderlust, contemporary tourists require an array of experiences that include elements of education, entertainment, picturesque scenery and culinary wonders.  The link between food and tourism allows destinations to develop local economies; and food experiences help to brand and market them, as well as supporting the local culture and knowledge systems.

 This is particularly important for rural communities, where 61% of sub-Saharan Africans live, according to the World Bank last year. These communities have often felt the brunt of urbanization, which has resulted in a shift away from rural economies. If implemented effectively, Africa could get a piece of the gastronomic tourism pie, which was worth $8.8 trillion last year, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

World-renowned chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu and author of her self-published cookbook, Through the Eyes Of An African Chef. Picture: Motlaban Monnakgotla

However, there is currently very little public information to pique the interest of tourists about African food. World-renowned South African chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu sought to remedy this with her self-published cookbook, Through the Eyes Of An African Chef.

“I think where it was very clear to me that I needed to do something was when I went to cooking school. I trained at Christina Martin School of Food and Wine. I thought I was actually going to get training on South African food and, somehow, I assumed we were talking indigenous food.

 “I was shocked that we went through the whole year’s curriculum and we didn’t cover anything that I ate at home; we didn’t cover anything that my first cousins, who are Sotho, ate in Nelspruit (in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province); we didn’t cover anything that would come from eSwatini, which is where my mother is from,” Mqwebu says.

By self-publishing, she has ultimately contributed to a value chain that has linked local food producers and suppliers, which includes agriculture, food production, country branding and cultural and creative industries.

“I am a member of Proudly South African, not only my business, but the book as well. Part of the reason is that the cookbook was 100% published in South Africa. So, everybody who worked on the cookbook, and printing, was all in South Africa, which is something quite rare these days because authors have their books published abroad.”

The Proudly South African campaign is a South African ‘buy local’ initiative that sells her cookbook on their online platform as its production adheres to the initiative’s campaign standards. Self-publishing has allowed Mqwebu to promote her book for two years and to directly communicate with her audience in a way she thought was best, while exposing her to a vast community of local networks. She recalls her first step towards creating her own body of work.

Amadumbe gnocchi. Picture: Nompumelelo Mqwebu and Nicole Louw Photography

“I was in culinary school when I wrote the recipe for amadumbe (potato of the tropics) gnocchi. We were making gnocchi and I thought, ‘so why aren’t we using amadumbe because it’s a starch?’ and when I tasted it, I thought, ‘this could definitely work’. I started doing my recipes then.

 “And there was talk about, ‘we don’t have desserts as Africans’. I did some research and found we ate berries, we were never big on sugar to begin with. That’s why I took the same isidudu (soft porridge made from ground corn) with pumpkin that my grandmother used to make and that became my dessert. “I also found that when I went to libraries looking for indigenous recipes, I couldn’t really find something that spoke to me as a chef. I found content that looked like history books. It was not appealing. It was not something, as a chef, I could proudly present to another chef from a different part of the world, so I knew I had to write my book,” Mqwebu says about the award-winning recipe book that chronicles African cuisine.

Isidudu (soft porridge made from ground corn) with pumpkin. Picture: Nompumelelo Mqwebu and Nicole Louw Photography

Financial and health benefits

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, in 2018, the tourism sector “contributed 319 million jobs, representing one in 10 of all jobs globally and is responsible for one in five of all new jobs created in the world over the last five years. It has increased its share of leisure spending to 78.5%, meaning 21.5% of spending was on business.”

To narrow in on how lucrative food can be, the World Food Travel Association estimates that visitors spend approximately 25% of their travel budget on food and beverages. The figure can get as high as 35% in expensive destinations, and as low as 15% in more affordable destinations. “Confirmed food lovers also spend a bit more than the average of 25% spent by travelers in general.”

However, there is a widely-held view that the African continent is not doing enough to maximize its potential to also position itself as a gastronomic tourism destination, using its unique edge of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS).

“We are not a culinary destination and we will never be while we are still offering pasta as the attraction for our tourists,” Mqwebu says.

Dr George Sedupane, who is the Coordinator of the Bachelor of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems program in South Africa’s North-West University, echoes Mqwebu’s sentiments.

“I often cringe when I go to conferences and there are guests from all over the world and we serve them pasta. Why would they come from Brazil to eat pasta here? They can have pasta in Italy. Why don’t we serve them umngqusho (samp and beans)?

Umngqusho (samp and beans). Picture: Nompumelelo Mqwebu and Nicole Louw Photography

“We need to be creating those experiences around our culture. We are failing to capitalize on our strengths. There is a lack of drive to celebrate what we have,” says Sedupane, who also teaches modules and supervises research in indigenous health and nutrition.

Writer and historian Sibusiso Mnyanda says current innovations in African food technology are born out of necessity, rather tourism and cultural ambitions.

“Food security is becoming an issue that is leading to IKS around farming being prioritized. In Nigeria, they are innovating dry season farming, because of deforestation and soil being de-cultivated. 

“So those indigenous knowledge strategies are being used in countries where it is a necessity and where there are enough advances related to the fourth industrial revolution. The traditional ways of producing food are not only much more organic, they are also crop-efficient,” Mnyanda says.

Nigeria may have inadvertently innovated a health solution related to colon cancer through its diet. Sedupane tells FORBES AFRICA an anecdote.

“There was a study where the colons of an African country that did not consume a lot of meat was compared to Europeans. The Africans had a much better profile as a result and there are people who want to buy African stool to get that kind of rich bacteria, that you get on an African plant-based diet.”

Dr George Sedupane, who is the Coordinator of the Bachelor of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Picture: Supplied

The study Sedupane is referring to was conducted in Nigeria and it states that: “Nigeria showed the average annual incidence of colorectal cancer was 27 patients per year. This shows that even if it seems that incidence rates are increasing in Nigeria, such rates are still about one-tenth of what is seen in the truly developed countries.”

In a bid to find reasons for this rarity of colon and rectal cancer, the study concluded that, among other reasons, the protective effects of Nigeria’s starch-based, vegetable-based, fruit-based, and spicy, peppery diet, and geographical location which ensures sunshine all year round, played a role in the country’s colon health.

Interestingly, it seems the potential value of African food could not only be based on what goes in but what also comes out as healthy faecal matter is big business globally. In 2015, The Washington Post published that one could potentially earn $13,000 a year selling their poop. 

The American-based company OpenBiome has been processing and shipping frozen stool to patients who are very sick with infections of a bacteria called C.difficile. It causes diarrhea and inflammation of the colon, leaving some sufferers house-bound. “Antibiotics often help, but sometimes, the bacteria rears back as soon as treatment stops. By introducing healthy faecal matter into the gut of a patient (by way of endoscopy, nasal tubes, or swallowed capsules), doctors can abolish C. difficile for good… And yes, they pay for healthy poop: $40 a sample, with a $50 bonus if you come in five days a week. That’s $250 for a week of donations, or $13,000 a year,” the publication stated.

Sedupane is of the view that a diet which includes indigenous foods could vastly improve one’s quality of life.

He says small changes could be made, such as including more of indigenous greens, namely sorghum and millet, to breakfast. The grains are gluten-free and produce alkaline which boosts the pH level of fluids in the body and reduces acidity.

Moringa fruit which is an African superfood. Picture: Getty Images

“Moving to our legumes, we have indlubu (Bambara groundnut) which is very rich and helps in the secretion of serotonin in the brain. This so important nowadays with the increase of depression. It’s easy to digest, and is great for cholesterol and moderating blood sugar,” Sedupane says.

 Mnyanda is also of the view that food is imperative to health and medicinal properties. He says traditional healers primarily use natural herbs in their practice. “These are used in pain relief and healing. Things like cannabis, camphor, African potatao and red carrots. So, food is not just used for nutritional purposes.”

Other African superfoods include, Baobab fruit, Hibiscus, Tamarind, Kenkiliba, Amaranth, Moringa and pumpkin leaves. 

Cultural and historical benefits

Gastronomic tourism also includes the promotion of heritage sites that are known to revolve around dishes that are of historic importance. They enhance the travel experience, they encourage the acquisition of knowledge and a cultural exchange.

There is a unanimous view that vast amounts of knowledge have been lost to history and there is a huge knowledge gap in African societies as a result of colonization and urbanization.

“Part of the colonial agenda was to make sure food security did not belong to indigenous groups. Therefore, archiving of these knowledge systems was not a priority. Especially during industrialization, where people moved from their villages to the city you found that the knowledge got left behind,” Mnyanda says.

Abathwa (the San people) hunting. Picture: Getty Images

He offers a contemporary example of how modernization continues to push African practices to the fringes: “To this day, abathwa (the San people) hunt their meat, but you find that because of changing agricultural practices and land reform on the Kruger National Park, they are being forced to move into the cities and industrial areas, therefore they are no longer able to practice their culture of hunting. As a result, their diet is changing.” Sedupane shares the view that the fundamentals of farming and astrology have also been exiled from public knowledge.

“The fundamentals of IKS were based on the understanding of the laws of nature – how and when things were done. Harvest cycles were linked with understanding astrology. They would not harvest until certain stars were visible in the sky. There was a dependence on nature.

“With industrialization, rather than working with nature, humans are seen as being above, as controlling, as directing it. The natural cycle is often tempered with rather than trying to work with it.”

Not all is lost however. There are historical practices that have stood the test of time and continue to be a part the few foods that are internationally associated with South Africa. Mqwebu says that, “historically, we ate more plants than meat because our ancestors had to hunt and the game back then was not tame. So, there were no guarantees that you would return with meat. And that’s where things like umqwayiba (biltong) come from. They had to preserve the meat, because wasting was not part of the culture”.

Umqwayiba (biltong). Picture: Getty Images

According to a 2015 exploratory research project conducted under the guidance of research institute Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society director Professor Melville Saayman, biltong contributes more than R2.5 billion ($163 million) to the South African economy.

Perhaps, like the faecal transporting company, Africa will soon realize the ‘wasted’ opportunity and that there is loads of money to be made in gastronomic tourism for all its inhabitants, whether they are rural or urban, technological or indigenous.

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