If there is one thing with which everyone knows the Igbos of South East Nigeria it is their ability to excel in business. Any young boy of Igbo origin is automatically born with the special anointing to be a successful businessman. And for centuries they have been practicing a unique business model that has finally caught the attention of the whole world. That business model is called The Igbo Apprenticeship System (IAS).
Of course it is impossible for the world not to take notice of the Igbo Apprenticeship System seeing the sustained success and wealth it has created over the years. But what really is The Igbo Apprenticeship System? How does it work? What are the advantages of the Igbo Apprenticeship System? Any evidence that the Igbo Apprenticeship System has been successful? Why is there a global push to adopt it as a formal business model in business schools? And why should nations embrace it? These and others are going to be the focus of my today’s blog post.
WHAT IS IGBO APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM?
The Igbo apprenticeship system (IAS) is a communal enterprising framework where successful businesses intentionally develop others by providing direct and on-site mentorship, and over time provide capital and pass along some of their customers to the new businesses. With this model, a few businesses grow to global status. But that is not where the success of the model lies. The success lies in the fact that it creates a largely equal community where everyone has opportunities. The Igbo Apprenticeship System has been central in preventing poverty in Igbo land by mass scaling opportunities for everyone.
This business model has been a perfect example of the popular management theory called stakeholder capitalism. And this is the complete opposite of the brutal shareholder capitalism practiced in most developed nations. Stakeholder capitalism is a proposition that businesses has an obligation to promote the interests of communities, workers, consumers, and the environment alongside those of shareholders and not just that of shareholders alone.
HOW DOES THE IGBO APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM WORK?
Practically, the Igbo Apprenticeship System works this way. Okechukwu leaves his native home of Nnewi in Anambra State to Lagos for a business exploration. He gets a shop in ASPAMDA market and start his spare parts business. And after some years, the shop grows and Okechukwu becomes a successful businessman in Lagos.
He immediately think about his brothers at home
Without any form of coercion or manipulation Okechukwu goes back to the village. In the village he will pick two to five children (depending on his capacity). These children are usually of primary or secondary school age. Then he moves back to Lagos with them, with the aim of training them and giving their lives a meaning. Usually, these children are boys and have either lost their fathers or the parents are too poor to train them. Igbos has a culture that believes that every child belongs to the community and not just one person. So it is the responsibility of the parents to bring the child into the world. But the responsibility of training the child is that of the entire community. By this, everyone must contribute in anyway he can to make the child turn out well.
So Okechukwu will take these children to Lagos and the next morning they will all resume in his shop in ASPAMDA market. That is the beginning of a journey that will eventually turn into long years of service to Okechukwu – period of apprenticeship. Usually, the standard number of years to serve is seven years. It can be more or less based on certain peculiar factors. And upon completion, Okechukwu invites his kinsmen, business partners, and others in a small ceremony to ‘settle’ the boys.
What does this ‘settlement’ mean?
It means voluntarily and with all good intention letting the boys to go and start building their own businesses. Remember that for those 7 years of service whatever the boys achieved is credited to Okechukwu, their master. But now, Okechukwu frees them to start a life of their own.
Also, during the period of this apprenticeship the boys live with their master as part of his family. And he takes 100% responsibility of their welfare. With this arrangement the boys have less pressure on them. They have nothing to worry about except how to contribute to the overall success of their oga’s business.
What is Okechukwu’s Obligation to the boys?
After the period of apprenticeship Okechukwu is under obligation to provide the following for the boys:
1. He rents a shop for them and pay 100% of the rent for 2 or 3 years.
2. He either provides seed capital for them or stock the shop for them
3. He prays for them and wish them well
4. He voluntarily and unselfishly release some of his customers to start patronizing his boys
Where does this settlement leave Okechukwu and his business?
He goes back to the village and pick another set of younger boys. In fact this usually happen either a year or two before Okechukwu settles the older boys. The new boys has one or two years to understudy the senior boys in the shop. And within those years they learn the business secret before the older boys are settled. So as the older boys are settled the new ones become the new managers of the business. And despite ceding some percentage of his market share, Okechukwu’s business continues to thrive.
And the boys that have been settled…
They move into a new apartment of their own and start attending to their own businesses. They start applying every single principle they have learnt from their master during their apprenticeship period. It is time for them to start building and growing their own businesses albeit with their own unique approaches. One step at a time the boys become their own oga. Their businesses also becomes as successful. In fact, it gets to a point where they will also go back to Nnewi without any form of coercion to bring their own boys. They will equally train and eventually settle those boys as their oga also did to them.
The pattern continues and successive businesses are being developed by successful ones. With this, the wealth goes round, equal opportunity is provided for everyone. And with time no one is left behind and the community becomes the better for it.
THE ORIGIN OF THE IGBO APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM
Some believe it started after the civil war
Prof. Ndubuisi Ekekwe is among those that share in this belief. They argue that the Igbo Apprenticeship System started because of the harsh economic effect of the civil war. The civil had left the Igbos at an economic disadvantage in the 70s. According to him the system was propelled by Igbo leaders when young men started leaving the region when the war ended in 1970. Speaking to BBC Igbo Service Ndubuisi was quoted as saying “As the elders blessed them, they dropped a message: ‘onye aghala nwanne ya’ (do not leave your brethren behind).”
It was part of the strategy to rebuild the economy of the south east
After the defeat of Biafra, a breakaway state dominated by the Igbo people, the Nigerian government confiscated all the bank accounts of the Igbos. It then gave each person a meagre sum of £20. That is an equivalent of about $420 today. It was not just the bank accounts that were confiscated though. Reports had it that some also lost their properties in some parts of the country to the Nigerian government. It was basically from that £20 that every Igbo man started with and has today build the enormous wealth as we know it. This success has been made possible by the Igbo Apprenticship System.
There is an Igbo proverb that says, ‘Onye ajulu adiro aju onwe ya’. It is loosely translated to mean ‘if people reject and deny you, you should not deny and reject yourself’. The Igbos truly called that proverb to action after the war. They set about rebuilding their businesses and communities. They carried friends, relatives and associates along. And the results have been outstanding and obvious for all to see.
Peoples Club also played a role
The Peoples Club, a popular social club formed in the town of Aba in 1971, is also credited for kick-starting the Igbo apprenticeship system. This is hugely believed to be so because they are the one that adopted ‘onye ayara nwanne ya’ philosophy as their key mantra.
Yet there are others who believe it goes as far back as during the slave trade in the 15th century.
Whichever is the case, one undisputable fact is that the Igbo Appreticeship System has being a key factor in the success of the Igbos. And it is highly advocated for other regions in Nigeria and beyond.
POPULAR MARKETS IN NIGERIA DEVELOPED BY THE IGBO APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM
Alaba International Market
Alaba International Market is the biggest electronics market in West Africa. It is located in Ojo area of Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos. The market focuses on the sale and repair of all manner of electronic and electrical products. It has over 10,000 merchants all Igbos and do about four billion dollars turnover annually. The volume of sales in the market has had significant positive effect on the economy of Lagos State and no governor of the state takes it for granted.
Even though this market is located in South West Nigeria, a region dominated by the Yorubas yet it was built by the Igbos. A typical shop in Alaba will have the oga, and an average of 3 boys serving him. Also to be seen around the shop are some other guys that are not directly related to the shop owner. They are not working for him, but are leveraging on his huge products’ base to earn a living through a system called oso-ahia (business errands). In some cases you also find the wife of the business owner who is automatically the cashier of the business.
ASPAMDA (Auto Spare Parts And Machineries Dealers Association) market is the major tenant of the 350 hectar Lagos International Trade Fair Complex. The market is located at Lagos-Badagry Expressway, Ojo. This is another market located in Lagos but dominated by the Igbos. The market is at the core of the traditional business of the Igbo Apprenticeship System. Most of the notable sons of Igbo extraction like Cosmas Maduka and Innocent Chukwuma started by dealing in spare parts.
Onitsha Main Market
Onitsha Main Market is one of the largest market in Africa based on geographical size and volume of goods traded. It is located in Onitsha the commercial capital of Anambra, south east Nigeria.
The market was built by the then Premiere of Eastern Nigeria, Dr, Michael Okpara. It was built as one of the first post-independence government projects in the Eastern Nigeria. Onitsha Main Market boasts an annual trade volume in excess of $3billion . The market doesn’t have a particular product it focuses on but deals majorly on textiles and fashion items. It has however been a major proponent of the Igbo Apprenticeship System.
Ariaria International Market, Aba
The Ariaria International Market is another market that ranks among the largest in West Africa. The market is located in the commercial city of Aba, Southeast Nigeria. It is so big that it spans across three local government areas; Osisioma, Aba North and Aba South. And has over 2 million traders majority of them being manufacturers. The market is known all over Africa for their extensive skill and versatility in the design of leather shoes and dresses. The dresses and shoes made in Ariaria are exported to all the continents of the world.
Cyprian Unigwe is the founder of C.Y. Unigwe and Sons (Nig) a typical Igbo man’s business in Ariaria. He is into the distribution of bicycles and bicycle spare parts. He shared with us how he has settled 5 boys from the same business. Of those 5 he settled, 2 have moved to other business. But the other 3 are still in the same line of business wit him. From that business his boys have bought cars for themselves and build houses in their village. But none of those have diminished Cyprian in anyway. In fact he is working on settling more people before he finally retires.
These are just a few of the major markets that exists thanks to the Igbo Apprenticeship System.
SUCCESSFUL PRODUCTS OF THE IGBO APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM
Cosmas Maduka: He famously started and build the Coscharis conglomerate from the 200 naira his uncle gave him after 7 years of faithful service.
Innocent Chukwuma: The founder of Innoson motors also served his elder brother before he was settled to start his own business and today he has the largest vehicle manufacturing companies in Africa.
Cletus Ibeto: Another proud product of the Igbo Apprenticeship System. He is the founder of Ibeto Group with interests in real estate, manufacturing and oil and gas.
Ifeanyi Ubah: Ifeanyi Ubah is today a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the chairman of Capital Oil. But he started as an apprentice, did well, had his own apprentice and grew through the system.
WHY THE IGBO APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM SHOULD BE EMBRACED GLOBALLY
As the world continues the conversation around inequality and shareholder capitalism it is important to take another look at the Igbo Apprenticeship System. It is my firm believe that the system can become a solution to the problem of inequality around the globe. If business schools across the world will incorporate this in their curriculum more successful brands will emerge faster. And it will also help entrepreneurs develop a collaborative mindset.
If governments at different levels will begin to embrace it unemployment and insecurity will be gone. This will equally bring about more opportunities, more growth and a healthier society.
Here are some of the reasons I believe the world and particularly Nigeria should embrace the Igbo Apprenticeship System:
1. Venture capital is guaranteed
Many graduates in Nigeria are unable to get the job the system promised them while they were seeking admission to higher institutions. Most of them after years of searching for job without success decided to venture into one form of business or the other. But often times such people who are willing to do businesses are hindered because they lack the financial capital to start.
But with the Igbo Apprenticeship programme the boys in training have no such fears. There are almost guaranteed of the venture capital needed to start their businesses. This capital are received at zero interest rate. What even makes this more encouraging is that the master has no equity in the new business venture. This is unlike the traditional venture capitalists that fund businesses only in exchange for a particular percentage of the business.
2. It will reduce the rate of business failures
The rate of business failures among graduates and other entrepreneurs in Nigeria is alarming. As noted above, the high rate of unemployment in Nigeria meant that many graduates had to resort to entrepreneurship. But about 90% of those that venture into entrepreneurship does not make it beyond the valley of shadow of death. Even when they manage to secure funding through family, friends, personal savings or government interventions success is still not assured. These has been blamed on lack of experience plus the tough business environment that the country offers. But failure rate is reduced to the barest minimum with the Igbo Apprenticeship System. This is so because the new business owner has taken many years to learn the ropes of the business practically.
3. It promotes collaboration over competition
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this system is that a successful businessman will deliberately empower someone else to become his direct competitor in the same market without any fears. But that is the beauty of the Igbo Apprenticeship System. No one sees the other person as a competitor. They believe that the market is big enough and that everyone can thrive. What a mindset! Instead of competing they collaborate. It is very common to see an Igbo man walk in freely into his neighbour’s shop, pick any product and sell to his customer. He will then go and reconcile account with his neighbour after the customer has gone.
4. It naturally encourages entrepreneurship
From day one it is clear to the apprentice that he is going to one day run his own business. There is no plan B for this model of education. No one is cajoled into entrepreneurship with this system. Rather the natural interest is just there.
5. It makes the entrepreneur more versatile
The Igbo Apprenticeship System trains a wholesome entrepreneur that is vast in every aspect of business. From operations, to marketing to accounting to human relations the skill-sets of the graduates of this system are excellent. They are also experts at persuasive marketing. And their strategies are unique.
6. It reduces unemployment rate
The unemployment rate in Nigeria hit 33.3% late 2021. What this implies is that more than half the total workforce of Nigeria are currently unemployed. That figure is more than the population of Senegal, Cameroon and Burkina Faso combined. No system can prove to be more effective in fixing the unemployment in Nigeria than the Igbo Apprenticeship System. With this system unemployment is reduced to the barest minimum as successive businesses are committed to recruiting others.
I know several intervention programmes that the federal government has embarked upon to tackle unemployment. Most of these programmes could not yield the intended result. You remember the FADAMA project, YOUWIN, N-Power, AGSMEIS, TIES etc? The question is can we boldly point to 10,000 businesses across the country that this schemes have produced?
What if the resources plunged into these programmes were rather invested through the Igbo Apprenticeship System? What do you think would have been the effect? For me, I believe unemployment in Nigeria could have been a thing of the past.
7. It promotes equality in the society
The Igbo Apprenticeship system brings about an efficient economic equilibrium and reduces inequality as much as possible. This is particularly important in the world today as the gap between the rich and the poor widens. And the middle-class is almost non-existent. A place like the Northern Nigeria will benefit from this system. It will be a great tool to eliminate the street beggars as they get the opportunity to serve their successful brothers.
8. It reduces insecurity and youth restiveness in the society
One dangerous implication of unemployment and inequality is insecurity and youth restiveness in the society. This is true anywhere in the world. But a good case study that anyone can relate with is what is happening in Northern Nigeria. It is very easy to exploit young people that are hungry and use them to cause havoc in the society. Different notorious gangs and groups emerged and grew because they could easily recruit jobless youths to join them.
The Igbo Apprenticeship System on the other hand engages these young boys where they grow up to learn both business skills and societal values. I believe it is no coincidence that the South East of Nigeria has been the most secured region in Nigeria. The Igbo Apprenticeship System which provided opportunity for everyone contributed in no small measure to this.
9. It discourages selfishness and greed
The level of unselfishness usually exhibited by those business owner is one ‘mystery’ the world is yet to understand about the Igbo Apprenticeship System. Else, how do you explain the fact that man brings a boy from the village and after a while settles and empowers him to become a direct competitor? He is not afraid of losing some customers to him. In fact he voluntarily hands over some customers to the boys. He knows and believes that the market is big enough to contain everybody. I see this as a spirit of generosity.
This is unlike what happens in capitalist societies. For example, the net worth of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerbeg kept rising on a daily basis. But these guys are still looking for ways to collect all the market shares from every perceived competitor. That explains why Zuckerberg for example will buy off brands like WhatsApp and Instagram. For them, it is a shareholder capitalism and they have no obligation to set up anyone nor share their wealth.
In conclusion the word can replicate the unimaginable wealth and equal opportunities created by the Igbos in Nigeria simply by adopting the Igbo Apprenticeship System.
SHARE WITH ME
Have you heard of the Igbo Apprenticeship System before? Is it worth all the praise it is receiving? In your opinion should government encourage the Igbo Apprenticeship System? Let us get your opinion on this. Feel free to talk to share with me through the comment box.