BUSINESS LESSONS FROM THE IGBO TRADERS’ COMMON SENSE
There is no doubt that the people of South East Nigeria who are predominantly Igbos are known for their industry and entrepreneurial spirit. They seem to be blessed with this natural flair for business and enterprise ability. And they largely practice a business model that has come to be known as Igbo apprenticeship system (IAS). IAS is a communal enterprising framework where successful businesses develop others, and over time provide capital and pass along their customers to the new businesses. From this, few businesses grow to become very dominant. And in doing so, they create a largely equal community where everyone has opportunities. The key focus of Igbo Apprenticeship System is to prevent poverty by mass scaling opportunities for everyone.
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This particular region of Nigeria has produced several billionaires. But most of these billionaires are not on Forbes list of the world billionaires because most times their businesses are not as structured. They are known to use a unique business model that no business school in the world has in their curriculum. Yet, there are tonnes of lessons to be drawn from a system which American author, journalist, investigative reporter and Tedex Speaker Robert Neuwirth described as the largest business incubator platform in the world.
Interestingly Havard Business Review in 2021 approved Igbo Apprenticeship System thanks to the works of Prof. Ndubisi Ekekwe.
BUSINESS LESSONS CORPORATE BRANDS CAN LEARN FROM THE IGBO APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM
In an era where the competition has become very brutal among businesses the Igbo Apprenticeship System only thinks in terms of collaboration and not competition. Whereas most entrepreneurs are thinking of how to win the competition the Igbo traders are only concerned of winning the customers.
A popular Nigerian comedian Ifeanyi Attansey in one of his popular videos makes a case of collaboration for Igbo Apprenticeship System. He argues that contrary to popular belief that Igbo businessmen don’t use charms. He said the magical way they out-sell their counterparts from other regions has got nothing to do with charm, rather the Igbo traders only know what it means to collaborate and this is a skill they usually learn why serving their masters. They can freely walk into any other shop in the market and pick a product they don’t have and sell and make their gain. Whereas others might just tell you they don’t have that product and let you go, the Igbo man knows that he can make that sale through his brother.
It is very common to see an Igbo offering refreshment for customers each time you walk into their shops. They always make sure their customers are comfortable while transacting business with them. In fact, an Igbo man will not let you start negotiating business until you sit down. By the time you are through with what you are buying an Igbo man will help you load the goods and send you on your way. With that can of hospitality and customer service it is easy for them to win over customers for life.
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If you visit an Igbo man’s shop for the first time you may find it very difficult to know who actually owns the shop. Both the oga and the boys will be busy working. The oga might be on shorts and slippers, in fact sometimes the boys dress better than him. Till you are through with your purchases the billionaire owner of that shop will keep addressing you as oga (master). This is a lesson that corporate brands and young entrepreneurs must learn.
SOME NOTABLE BILLIONAIRES PRODUCED BY THE IGBO APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM
Cosmas Maduka, the billionaire founder of Coscharis Group, a conglomerate with diverse interest in manufacturing, automobiles, agriculture and petrochemicals, is perhaps the most pronounced product of the Igbo Apprenticeship System.He served his master, an uncle for 7 years. Within those 7 years Cosmas was responsible for opening up new branches in different cities in Nigeria. The the story has it that he was not properly settled, with his master letting him go with just 200 naira, yet it was the process that made him who he is today.
Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma
Another prominent example of the Igbo Apprenticeship System is Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma. He is the founder of Innoson Motors, the largest indigenous automobile manufacturing company by sales in Africa. He couldn’t proceed to university after his secondary education and had to serve through the Igbo Apprenticeship System. First, he served his elder brother Gabriel Chukwuma. And later he went to serve Chief Romanus Eze Onwuka popularly known as Rojenny.
One of the first and most popular names in the cement industry in Nigeria Cletus Ibeto is another proud product of the Igbo Apprenticeship System. He served John Akamelu, an auto spare parts dealer in Onitsha, South East Nigeria. Today, he is the chairman and founder of one of the largest manufacturing conglomerate in Igbo land, Ibeto Group
Ifeanyi Ubah is another popular product of the Igbo Apprenticeship System. Today, Ifeanyi is a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the the owner of one of the largest private fuel depots in Africa, Capital Oil & Gas. Capital Oil has the biggest private oil jetty in Nigeria. That jetty has an 18-ARM loading gantry, ocean-going vessels. It also has a storage facility of over 200 million liters, and hundreds of distribution tankers.
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Vincent Obianodo Amaechi
Another product of the Igbo Apprenticeship System is Vincent Obianodo Amaechi, the billionaire owner of Young Shall Grow Motors. He first served as a bus conductor and then as a vulcanizer as a boy. Then in 1972 he left to start what is today the biggest transport company (by number of fleet) in Nigeria.
These are just few among millions of successful businessmen that the Igbo Apprenticeship System has produced.
Most of these men had no formal education as we have it today in their early days. Their own education was largely informal and involves learning directly from their masters. For instance, Cosmas Maduka dropped out in primary three, while Innocent Chukwuma could not go beyond secondary school. But today they have gone ahead to build multi-billion dollar businesses across Nigeria and indeed Africa.