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Igbo Apprenticeship System: An incubation model for SMEs

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It is a scheme that has endured many decades. It is laced with success as it churns out millionaire businessmen and women regularly. But with Nigeria’s alarming unemployment rate, calls for the Nigerian government to look the way of the Igbo Apprenticeship System for economic revival have heightened in recent times. In this piece, LADESOPE LADELOKUN writes on the good, bad and ugly sides of the scheme


With his tall and athletic frame, he had longed to be a basketball superstar. He fancied the glamour accompanying the game and fantasised his success. But fate would not bow to Mitchel Joseph’s wish.


Joseph, who now deals in phone accessories, is a product of the Igbo Apprentice System (IAS). For him, success is only measured by the number of people assisted to climb the ladder of success.

In Igbo land, he said, the financial success of a person in a family could turn around the fortunes of their immediate and extended families. According to him, an Igbo proverb affirms that when everyone is wealthy, there will not be enemies, stating that a great number of the Igbo are firm believers in the philosophy of “giving light to the lamps of others so that when theirs go off ,it is easily reignited.”


For him, his metamorphosis from an apprentice to a business owner and being able to err on the side of patience are secrets of his staying power. He told Sunday Telegraph his grass-to-grace story has inspired his siblings and kinsmen to become entrepreneurs.

“People think we do blood money. It’s not correct. We are a very patient people. I’ve faced so many challenges in this business and I’m still staying strong. When you learn a business, it’s a different experience from when you just start a business with no experience.

There will definitely be ups and downs. You will easily chicken out if it’s something you just want to do because others are doing it. I know people who started my business because they think I’m doing well. Where are they today? Patience is key. As I’m selling now, someone would see me driving a posh car and they just want to be like me but they don’t know the sacrifice that went into it.”


“So, when you see an Igbo man open a shop, he looks for someone he can trust. In those days, there was nothing like agreement. Everything was based on trust. When you serve for a certain number of years, you get financial support to start your own business.


But there are some greedy masters who would want their boys to serve for 10 years or more. Some would even look for excuses not to give their boys seed capital. In Igbo land, we help ourselves. After the war, the Igbo suffered a lot. They used the scheme to help themselves.”


With thousands of ventures said to be developed and established annually through it, the Igbo Apprenticeship System is deemed the largest in the world. Defined by an entrepreneur and inventor, Professor Ndubuisi Ekweke, as a business philosophy of shared prosperity, where participants co-competitively participate to attain organic economic equilibrium where accumulated market leverageable factors are constantly weighted and calibrated out, the IAS, experts say, is capable of causing fresh changes in the contemporary capitalist system.


The scheme, it was learnt, has produced numerous Igbo multi-billionaires such as the Chairman of Innoson Motors, Chief Innocent Chukwuma; the CEO of Coscharis, Cosmas Maduka; the CEO of Ibeto Group of Company, Cletus Ibeto, among others. According Forbes, the Southeastern part of Nigeria-hugely populated by the Igbohas the highest number of US dollar millionaires in Nigeria, and the highest num-ber of niara billionaires in Nigeria with Anambra State being the state with the highest number of billionaires in Nigeria.


Speaking to Sunday Telegraph, Ifeanyichukwu George, an entrepreneur who plies his trade in Computer Village, a Tech hub in Lagos, said that there are three major types of the IAS. According to him,” the most popular system is the Igba Boyi system.


This system involves the master bringing an apprentice from his village to the town to learn his business. He does not need any form of education to do that. In fact, that is his own education. He lives with the master. He’s also required to do the chores. But the master provides the seed capital when the apprenticeship is over.” Unlike the Igba Boyi, where a mentee will be tutored for free for pre-agreed years, the Imu Oru (handiwork) and Imu Ahia (buying and selling) types involve payment by parents/sponsors of the mentee for tutorship.”


It’s the reason Igbos are great in business

In a series of tweets, a social commentator and activist, Aisha Yesufu, said the Igbo apprenticeship is an amazing system and the reason the Igbo are great in business, adding that everything has its advantage and disadvantage and that the same system has also portrayed Igbos as clannish  people, who only employ their own people.

“These are my opinions and thoughts over the years and I might be completely wrong but this is how I see it “There is a need to take a deliberate look at the Igbo apprenticeship system and begin to look at ways of inclusion. It can start with 5 per cent inclusion of others.

When you always go to your village to bring those that will work for you, how do you expect the people where you are to feel? “Just like the Jews, Igbos are resented and I have always wondered why? Is it because they are successful and can achieve anything from nothing?


Is it the resilience? I concluded it is because it seems no matter how long they stay with you or you with them, you are never one in biz “A situation where as a business person, you only employ your people via the apprenticeship model and no matter how long you stay in a place, you never employ the indigenes there except to load and off load, there will be resentment. More if it is not one off experience but the norm “The Jews too have that trait. Family businesses.

Helping each other grow in business and capacity to gang up (if na one naira na one naira) on business issues are common traits shared by both Igbos and Jews. The others feel like outsiders not allowed to share in the goodness. “Systems are to be looked at and upgraded from time to time.


It is also important to look at how things are perceived by others. You don’t have to change but just know this is how this action is seen by others. “In all the riots I witnessed as a child, I always say it is more economical than religion. Host community usually think it is the others that kept them impoverished.

They feel those monies would have been theirs if these people weren’t there. People don’t blame their lazy selves.”


Some ‘big men’ also do it

“After I returned from Dubai, all my siblings stayed with me. Apart from one that was seeking admission, they came to learn what I do here and today, they are doing well. I’ve also trained some other people. If other people do what we(the Igbo) do, poverty will be reduced.

That is why it is hard to see a family that you won’t find one person that has achieved financial breakthrough in Igbo land. I served my master for five years. He was into motorcycle spare parts. I left in an improper way. We actually agreed 7 years in fairness to him. He ‘settled’ me but not like what I would have got if I served for 7 years. It was due to youthful exuberance. I would not advise anyone to behave the same way.

The Igbo apprenticeship system has really helped the Igbo. If you see an Igbo businessman doing well, know that someone trained him. They didn’t just wake up one morning to start doing business. That’s why it is hard for an Igbo man to close down a business he starts,” Mitchell Joseph said. Baring his mind on the matter, business man and a chief in Ngwa land, Abia State, Innocent Ogbonna, said contrary to the belief in some quarters that the IAS is only for the poor, comfortable Igbo men also undergo apprenticeship. “Many millionaires have emerged through it. We call it ‘boy boy’.

Depending on the agreement, some people do 4,5 years. Some big men do it. All they just need is the knowledge. That doesn’t take time. You report like a “boy boy” too. The big men I’m talking about have the capital. They don’t need any seed capital. “But in the case of boys who need the knowledge and the capital, it is possible for the boss you’ve served to seek your consent to extend the service years- the number of years- if your boss does not have a befitting replacement.

He could ask you to continue. But that will definitely add to the benefits initially agreed upon.


Time to embrace Igba Boyi -Osinbajo

At the National Summit on Igbo Apprenticeship recently held in Anambra State,Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo harped on the need for Nigeria to embrace economic revival, adding that for several generations, legions of businessmen, traders and entrepreneurs have emerged and come into their own through the conveyor belt of the Igbo apprenticeship scheme otherwise known as Igba Boyi.


The Vice President said the scheme could be calibrated for national use and to meet the realities of the 21st century. Osinbajo said: “For several generations, legions of businessmen, traders and entrepreneurs have emerged and come into their own through the conveyor belt of the Igbo apprenticeship scheme otherwise known as Igba Boyi. “It is, perhaps, the most popular indigenous Nigerian economic institution that has been globally recognized as the world’s largest business incubator.

This clearly demonstrates that, as a people, we possess socio-cultural tools with which to forge a future of sustainable prosperity. “So, we must ask ourselves, for example, how do we scale up the scheme to maximise its potential as an engine of wealth creation and economic growth? How do we bring the scheme into the formal economy? Are there aspects of the scheme that technology can enhance? I believe that the Igba Boyi Scheme has the potential to do for our economy what similar apprenticeship schemes have done in other parts of the world.


“The notable ones are the ones in Germany and India. They have something unique to teach the world. And I think that this is a good start to begin to teach the world something original that comes out of the Nigerian business environment.”

For the Chairman of the United Nigeria Airline, Dr Obiora Okonkwo, unlike the industrial apprenticeship system, the Igbo apprenticeship scheme is as much about  learning the skills of a particular trade or craft, as it is about inculcating the right values required to be a respected member of society.


According to him, everyone familiar with the apprenticeship scheme would readily attest to its immense role in lifting the Igbo out of the devastating impact of the civil war and their quick re-emergence as key players in the Nigerian economy, even if mostly in the informal sector.

“The Igbo Apprenticeship Scheme, the foundation of the famed Igbo enterprise has a long history dating back to pre-colonial times. However, a combination of factors during the Nigerian Civil War, and its aftermath, provided the impetus for what some have called the massification of the apprenticeship scheme. Such include the destruction of the means of livelihoods of most people and the resurgence of the communal spirit of solidarity and oneness,” he added.


Meanwhile, in a recent research titled: ‘Igbo Entrepreneurial Incubation Scheme (IEIS) ‘, which was led by Professor A.U Nonyelu in conjunction with Prof. Ezimma Nnabuife, Dr. Blessing Iyama, Dr. Chinedu Onyeizugbe and Dr. Rosemary Anazodo, it was discovered that the Igbo Apprenticeship Scheme is declining, partly because of the name ‘Apprentice’, as young Igbo boys learning a trade are called, is derogatory. Also,the research found out that the name for Apprenticeship ‘Igba Boyi’ makes young boys in the trade feel humiliated, suggesting that should be replaced with ‘Nkwado Ogalanya”.


Not an organic model; it has lost its essence -Tope Fasua

In an chat with Sunday Telegraph, social commentator and economist, Dr Tope Fasua, expressed doubt about the possibility  of the Igbo Apprenticeship System being nationalised, describing it as a scheme that is not organic.


“For many times, the apprentice doesn’t keep to agreement with the master because we now live in a globalised world where everyone wants to make it and move.And many times, the master doesn’t keep to the agreement with the apprentice due to financial pressure. There is a limit to which you can push that kind of model. It’s not an organic model. It was only useful culturally for the Igbo after the civil war.


You go to a place like Anambra State, the boys, especially stop going to school. The girls are the ones you see in schools. So, people should be careful the kind of things they push just because it has elegance. I think the Vice President himself should be careful about some of his utterances.


“If you’re saying boys should drop out of school to become a billionaire, I would rather have a robust middle class among the youth who are contributing to the development of the country than have a few billionaires and half of the people are poor.”


Let’s embrace the Asian model

In many cases, according to Dr Babatope Ogunniyi, some masters don’t fulfill their obligations to their apprentices. The economics lecturer told Sunday Telegraph that there was need to consider the Asian model following what he described as the fading glory of the Igbo Apprenticeship System. “You see, most times, when officials talk, they talk to give a kind of impression to the people they address.


The apprenticeship system is still in practice but not as it used to be.The situation around today has given us a new thought on entrepreneurship. In Asia, there is what is called the Empire System. People belonging to the same area of interest are under a particular boss.


The purpose is to get them trained. The government sponsors the training and provides funds with which they start their businesses after the apprenticeship.


The duration for apprenticeship certainly varies. It all depends on your interest. How many of these people clamouring for the Igbo Apprenticeship System can allow their children to learn a trade for 5 to 10 years? The demerits outweigh the merits.”


Reacting to the call to embrace the Asian model of apprenticeship, a US-based economist, Dr Razak Ladelokun said:”We can study their system if it’s going to work for us. Nothing is really bad in keying into it. But we have to develop infrastructure.


For instance, if we fix power, many small businesses will spring up and flourish. The Igbo have a culture of adaptation and perseverance. They can live anywhere and this is why they have ventures everywhere. All these have positive economic implications for Nigeria.”

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