New Telegraph

Aba: Remodelling Igbo Apprenticeship System To Survive Harsh Economy

Participants and officials after completing their mentorship programme

To gripple with the current economic realities, Igbo youths have re-engineered the traditional entrepreneurship model introduced by their progenitors, EMMANUEL IFEANYI reports

Apprenticeship system

The Igbo Apprenticeship System (IAS) does not need introduction anywhere. It has an agedlong system with an enduring history, which over the years rose to become a practical economic system for the economic survival and financial bedrock of Ndigbo (The Igbos) immediately after the end of the Civil War.

Therefore, it is not out of place to say that the Igbo apprenticeship system has roots in Nigeria’s post civil war harsh economic condition of the Igbos, who emerged from three years of hostility between 1967 and 1970, devastated but determined to count their losses and move on.

In the push for survival through the apprenticeship system, a small group of individuals led by Chief Titus Ume-Ezeoke gathered in Aba, to establish the Peoples Club in 1971 and was to serve as socioeconomic and business movement. A rallying point for Ndigbo that enabled them to move out from the terrible ruins of the war to greater economic heights.

The club was formed with the spirit of uniting people of like minds; for social interaction. Many said its formation was timely and it was well received because of its founding principle and ethos tied to the Igbo Philosophy of “Onye Aghala Nwanne ya” (Be your brother’s keeper) embodied in its motto: Unity, Love and Service.

With time, those who have made in businesses and established names and thriving business outfits for themselves, especially trading, go back home to their various villages to look for young men and take them to the city to train, nurture and groom.

This they do for between five and seven years in their various trades, depending on their agreement, at the expiration of the agreed years, the master will use a huge amount of money and most times, a shop, depending on the sound relationship that exists between them, to settle his apprentices.

Changing phase

However, in present day Aba, Ndigbo is currently witnessing a renaissance of the 1971 movement. This time, things are not what they used to be. There is no more Peoples Club or individual-to individual training; it is a new era championed by “Umu Aba Connect.”

Umu Aba Connect is an umbrella body of some young men of like minds who were born and bred in Aba, Abia State, but have succeeded in their fields of endeavours in different parts of the world and decided to reunite to give back to the society through the liberation of indigent young residents of the city from the shackles of poverty and unemployment, with the mission to “Skill Up Aba.”

Unlike the previous movement that was all about master and servant training in trading, which will see the servant reside in the master’s house where his training is from home to the shop for a period not less than five years, this new movement is based on contract between Umu Aba Connect and various businesses/companies they paid to train their beneficiaries (students/apprentice).

These beneficiaries are trained in the acquisition of various skills ranging from CCTV, Cable TV and Solar Installation, Photography and Video Editing, Beauty and Make-Up Artist, Fashion Design (Male and Female), Shoe Making, Food and Pastries, Web Design and Development, Paint Production/Painting, to Graphics Designing and Media.

Skill-up Aba

Mr Osondu Mbonu, the project supervisor for Skill Up Aba Cohort-0.1, explained to New Telegraph that the new system is an improvement on the early apprenticeship system, with the introduction of training institutes, and mentorship period, which is different from the training period.

With the new system comes the introduction of the award of certificates by the “Umu Aba Connect” who sees the beneficiaries as their students in various institutions of skill acquisition. The payment for their training and skill acquisition is from Umu Aba Connect to the various training and mentorship institutes.

According to Mbonu, “This is a movement with a difference. Umu Aba Connect didn’t start the movement because we’re emerging from a violent war like what we had back then. This is a movement that emanated from the harsh reality of our economic condition in this part of the world. We’ve seen how certificates have failed people.

“We’ve seen how trading is not even what it used to be. We’ve seen how university certificates have kept many unemployed. So, we decided to take a twist because Aba and Igbo land in general is full of people with different certificates and people who can successfully enter any market and succeed.

“We thought of adding skills to our youths so that they can now use their skills to render services to better their lives and improve the society. There are many programmes lined up for beneficiaries to select where to fit in. “People are looking for individuals with the skills to solve their various problems and a youth with skill is a problem solver.

When we started the plan, we discussed the model to use. We thought about gathering them in a place for constant training, and we thought of different classroom models but in the end, we decided to adopt an improved version of the Igbo Apprenticeship System.

“In this model, we send the beneficiaries (students) to already exist ing organisations and businesses where they will be trained and mentored for the skills. That’s why in today’s graduation ceremony, all those businesses we sent our students to be here to celebrate and present them to Umu Aba Connect to certify them as better citizens than when they were handed over to them three to nine months ago.

“These existing businesses are paid by the Umu Aba Connect to train and mentor our students between the periods of three to nine months where those who could finish early will remain with the facilitators (businesses) to learn more about the business part of the skills they just acquired. “You must realise that having a skill is not enough.

You must equally learn the business part of your skill to be able to compete and survive. You can’t just learn Solar Installation without knowing how to buy certain equipment, where to get them and how to charge and meet up with requirements.

“It is one thing to learn a skill, but a different thing to learn the marketing angle of that skill, the management angle and of course, the customer relations angle. All these are what they end up learning after the training and proceed to the mentorship stage. So, it’s beyond the usual skill acquisition without guardians. This is why it’s an improvement from what our fathers introduced.”

Cohort -0.1 graduates

Mbonu said that Cohort-0.1 led Umu Aba Connect to train above 112 persons who passed through the system and are in the process of becoming employers of labour and problem solvers.

This is as he disclosed; “As I speak to you, about 28 of them are currently running their own businesses across Aba, Umuahia and Owerri relying upon the training and mentorship they received from the facilitators. Umu Aba Connect has succeeded in remodelling the Igbo Apprenticeship System.

This is not about a theoretical skill acquisition programme. “This is just the institutionalisation of the Igbo Apprenticeship System, which is different from the old one where you learn through observation without consciously feeling that you are learning.

The difference here now is that you are consciously trained, consciously mentored and equally allowed to learn and get mentored through observation, which is unconscious.”

Social, charity organisation

Ugochukwu Okpara, Secretary General of Umu Aba Connect, said that the group is a social and charity association of people that have one thing in common, born and raised in Aba, but now doing well in different places.

He said: “We were all born and raised in Aba but we decided to come together to empower both ourselves internally and the general people of Aba since 2016.

“We’ve been doing a whole lot of charitable works within this city like the donation of hospital equipment to ABSUTH in 2017, payment of hospital bills, helping orphanages and advocacy projects. “We’ve used our connections to cause positive changes in some localities in Aba that have some peculiar problems like electricity and other human and environmental needs.

“We’ve given support to the government, criticised present and past governments and equally commended them when necessary. We equally help some entrepreneurs from time to time.

Financial liberation

Over the years, Umu Aba Connect noted Okpara has transformed from a social and charity organisation to creating a platform for the economic and financial liberation of its people across board.

This is as he disclosed: “However, this time around, we decided that we must create a platform for financial liberation and that’s what led us to introduce this skill acquisition programme, titled – ‘Skill Up Aba’.

“We had a meeting and decided that this skill acquisition programme will be a panacea to our brothers joining cultism and our sisters getting into ugly things like hook-ups. So, all we are doing is to upgrade their lives and restore the dignity of humans in all of them.

“The courses were designed to meet societal needs. I’m happy that some of them are now stable and strong enough to take care of themselves and even a new family. “The positive impact is huge and that’s what we want to see. The government cannot do everything. We’re proud to support and we’re proud we’ve changed and touched lives.”

Equal opportunity

Okpara said that the selection process is open for all, as it is not something anyone enters because someone big brought you in. According to him: “We had over 3000 applications, but we needed to introduce a simple and open system of selecting early applications that came in to start up with.

We ran the adverts on radio stations within the city and placed billboards within Aba here for those interested to come. “So, we don’t even know those we’re helping. All we know is that we’re improving the lives of our fellow humans who live in Aba and will help make Aba a greater city in the future.”

Chief Uche Udo, a member of the Umu Aba Connect told New Telegraph that with the level of unemployment and poverty wreaking havoc in the country today; it is a no-brainer for both government and well-meaning individuals to think of a better and sustainable way of rescuing the youths.

“When I was small, I told God that Aba, a place where I was born and brought up is very important to me and I’d love to help to make it better. This Association has allowed all of us to help make this city a better place,’’ said Udo. Speaking further he said: “I made it clear to God that when I become a man, I’ll join the group of people that will help people in this city.

I don’t reside in this country anymore, but because of the love I have for this city, I returned to be a part of the members that will witness the graduation. “I’m tired of hearing that our youths are into touting. I feel such should end. I sincerely wish to advise all those involved in one unwholesome thing or the other to take advantage of this olive branch we’re offering to acquire skills that’ll make them better.”

New mindset

Vitalis Ibeka, Coordinator of the Skill Up Aba Cohort-101, said that the need to reconfigure the mindset of the present day youths that success comes through learning and hard work led Umu Aba to choose the Skill Up Programme for the youths.

“The history of our land is gradually being rewritten by those who don’t know the true story of our people. We’re a people that are proud of our skills and knowledge.

We make money with it, so looking at how to impact society and save Aba from all manner of things; we decided to help push people into skills.

“This is the way to go. A trained mind brings busy hands. Nobody can give what he doesn’t have. The feedback we’re getting is positive and by the grace of God, we’ll extend the programme and get things right. Note that those that graduated today will help remove people from the street as well.”

Invest-at-Home Movement

Comrade Godson Ibekwe-Umelo, Abia State Chapter Chairman of the Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF), an Igbo intelligentsia organisation championing the “Aku Ruo Ulo” (Invest At Home Initiative), among Igbos, while speaking exclusively to New Telegraph, said that what “Umu Aba Connect” is doing is now a completely new paradigm in the Igbo Apprenticeship System.

Ibekwe-Umelo said that Nigeria is currently going through horrendous economic hardship, the worst in her over 60 years of political independence, occasioned by corruption, unemployment, inequity and poverty that affect mostly the vulnerable youths, most of whom had taken to anti-social activities such as kidnapping, internet fraud and prostitution.

He said that the situation has led many youths to leave the shores of Nigeria in search of greener pastures and ended up as victims of trafficking and crimes. He added that a gloomier picture is painted even in the case of the South East of Nigeria, people of Igbo ethnic nationality.

Ibekwe-Umelo said that although this situation prevailed, the most tragic aspect of Igbo social and economic woes is the abandonment of major investments and agricultural projects initiated by the Nnamdi Azikiwe-Michael Okpara era and the gradual loss of the Igbo philosophy of self-reliance.

According to him, faced with these critical challenges and following the vigorous campaign by ALAIGBO Development Foundation (ADF), a foremost Pan Igbo organisation, spearheading the Invest-at-Home Movement otherwise known as “Aku Ruo Ulo Movement.”

He said that efforts have been made by several state governments in Igbo land, but the recent response and intervention by the Umu Aba Connect who took a bold step and massive initiative by exploring the well-known Igbo Apprenticeship mechanism, now promoted by the US Harvard Business School is most welcomed.

Commendation

Anita Ugochukwu Chibugo, Chief Executive Officer of Rich Annie Cook and Bake Academy, Aba, one of the businesses that served as the training grounds for the Cohort-001 of the Skill Up Aba Programme, said that the whole scheme is a success that must be sustained to help take the youths off the streets.

According to her: “This is really out of this world. Umu Aba Connect brought in beneficiaries of their programmes to us for training and mentorship.

Umu Aba Connect equally paid 100 per cent of every required payment to us. “Honestly, I don’t know how to qualify this kind of love Umu Aba Connect has for these young ones. It’s unimaginable.

Honestly, I gave my best to those sent to my institute for training and mentorship. I see their faces full of appreciation. Honestly, I’ve never seen this before. “I’m proud of my students and I know they’re good to go. I urge our bigger brothers in other cities to borrow a leaf from Umu Aba Connect to make their cities better. I thank Umu Aba Connect so much.”

Beneficiaries speak

Miss Grace Okafor, one of the beneficiaries trained and mentored on CCTV and Solar Installation told New Telegraph that she was properly mentored and exposed to other genuine means she can get money through the business angle of the skill acquisition.

She noted: “Apart from the skill, I was mentored by my boss, Engineer Akachukwu; on other means I can get money to help myself in the same line of business, which is different from installation. “He mentored me on energy auditing, affiliate marketing and concentration.

I must confess that since I finished with the training, I’ve been working through affiliate marketing, which I do by referring prospective customers to him, at the end of their business transactions with him, I get my own pay.

“It works this way, the products are not mine, but I go out there to source for the buyers through my idea, when I get the buyers, I bring them to him and business is on.

My mentorship programme lasted for two months after the proper training. “What we’ve been introduced into is something I never imagined was possible. I’m sure those in the universities will doubt it. Even during my training, I was getting money via affiliate marketing to help myself as a lady.

“That’s complete financial independence. I say thank you to our big brothers, Umu Aba Connect. They’re the government we see today. I’m currently good enough to go. All I need now is to build my team.” Another beneficiary, Caleb Okafor, trained under Cake and Pastries, said that he is proudly a professional baker, who can comfortably make cakes and snacks.

“It wasn’t easy to learn this new skill, but the teaching from the best hands made life easier throughout the training and mentorship period. I’m so grateful to Umu Aba Connect.” Peter Susan, a beneficiary, told the New Telegraph that she learnt her skill properly after three months and began trying her hands at the making of birthday cakes, and other edibles just after her mentorship.

“I doubt if there’s anything I can’t bake right now. I truly feel fulfilled and comfortable because I’m ready for business and equally prepared to give my best to all my customers. “What we got was beyond ordinary training. It was rather an exposure to the reality of life. It’s something I’ve not done before but this has opened my creative mind.

“The positive feedback I get from all those who must have tasted my products has left my face with a smile and everlasting gratitude to Umu Aba Connect.”

Mrs Obia Chioma, one of the beneficiaries, also noted that the skill she acquired from the training has made her see the difference between certificate and real knowledge. “I’m a better person, a better woman and a stronger woman ready to face this society right now,” she disclosed happily

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