As Uzoma opened his new shop on the first day of business, he was full of joy with his face lit up with smiles. An energetic man from a poor home in southeastern Nigeria, Uzoma, just completed his Igbo apprenticeship that lasted for eight years.
All this time, he has been learning how to buy and sell cars under the guidance of his master, Mr. Chimamanda. Every year, many young men like Uzoma enter the Igbo apprenticeship system (IAS), also known as Imu-Ahia. After successful completion, their masters offer cash gifts that elevate them to the status of businessmen.
Lately, this system has caught international attention. The Harvard Business Review magazine has already published some work about it. Nevertheless, a lot is still unknown about IAS. Today, we tell you everything you need to know about this model including its pros and cons.
What is Igbo Apprenticeship System?
This is an informal entrepreneurial apprenticeship framework whereby established business owners take in young inexperienced men to work under them while learning the trade. The apprentice or servant works for an agreed period, which is mostly between five to eight years.
Afterward, the business owner offers capital or anything else agreed by the parties. Using this cash together with the knowledge and skills gained during the apprenticeship period, the young man establishes and runs his own businesses.
IAS, which is popularly called “Imu-Ahia” is translated as “to learn trade/market”. Learning to trade or market is an important part of Igbo culture. In some Igbo villages, the Imu-Ahia process starts with a formal traditional ceremony.
The young boy’s family hands him over to the businessman who villagers call “Oga”. Respected village elders act as witnesses of the handing-over ceremony. The Oga spells out his expectations and promises to take care of the boy’s welfare.
The family cautions their boy to be hardworking, honest, and faithful to the Oga. The service offered by the servant to the business owner is usually unpaid. However, the businessman typically provides clothing, food, and shelter. The IAS has produced more millionaires in the southeastern part of Nigeria than formal education.
Origin of Igbo Trade Model
This informal training model developed from a long-standing culture of sending young people to live with their older relatives living in towns. The relatives supervised the young family members and educated them as well. They also introduced them to trading.
Igbo apprenticeship framework gained prominence in the 1970s after the end of the Nigerian-Biafran war. This war rendered the Igbo community poor. The apprenticeship system was built based on Igbo’s lekota nwanne gi nwoke principle, which means to “take care of your brother.”
Igbo people embraced this system to help restore their lost wealth. The apprenticeship framework ensures that new generations are trained to become successful businessmen. That way, it has turned many from the path of poverty and made them successful businessmen.
Imu-Ahia is definitely one of the important training stages many boys from Igbo must go through before they become independent. Some Igbo young men even prefer the apprenticeship system over formal education. Others combine it with formal education.
Pros of the Igbo Apprenticeship System
Unknown to many, this system is among the untapped blessings that Nigerian culture possesses. The success of this business training model has attracted Nigerians from other parts of the country as well as foreign nationals.
Many seek to understand it with the hope of creating a similar system. There are several advantages of this Igbo system. Below are the main benefits of the Igbo apprenticeship model.
1. An informal startup incubator
IAS can be likened to the modern incubator programs that nurture entrepreneurs and support startups. It provides practical business skills and knowledge to the apprentices. Some people have even likened the skills and insights gained during apprenticeship to those acquired in business schools.
Many longstanding businesses are a product of a cultural ideology that is centered on instilling business skills among young men. One famous businessman that is a product of this system of education is Cosmas Maduka, the CEO of Coscharis Group.
2. Provides mentorship
During the apprenticeship period, young men undergo mentorship not only in business but other areas of life. Their masters offer them guidance on a more personal level. They instill social values and ethical behaviors in their trainees.
Since Igbo men undertake this mentorship at a young age, they often become experts at an early stage. Armed with both soft and hard skills of running a business, these men establish successful businesses later in life.
3. Nurtures entrepreneurship mindset
The Igbo model in Nigeria fosters an entrepreneurship mentality in the servants. It imparts business skills and ideas that build expertise in young Igbo men. Subsequently, they are not likely to suffer from the startup error syndrome at the early stages of business.
The Igbo apprenticeship system produces experts in sales and marketing. Perhaps, the entrepreneurship mindset encouraged during apprenticeship is what has enabled most Igbo people to build collective wealth.
4. Opportunity for Angel Investment
Imu-Ahia is highly valued by parents from the Igbo communities particularly because it connects their sons with investors. Once the apprenticeship period is over, the businessman provides capital to the servant.
Some businessmen offer additional gifts to ensure the young man has everything he needs to establish and run a successful business. No doubt that the Igbo model presents an opportunity to secure startup funding. Also, the apprentice rides on the reputation of their master to gain access to suppliers.
5. Reduces poverty and inequality
A key focus of the Igbo apprenticeship model is to reduce poverty in the community by mass scaling business opportunities. The model is structured in a way that every young man in the community gets an opportunity to learn to trade. That way, it helps to create equality in the region by preventing extreme poverty.
Communities such as the Igbos that are largely equal create stable societies. Over the years, the Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria have produced many naira millionaires and billionaires. Successful Igbo entrepreneurs continue to eradicate poverty in their communities by taking in young men and training them to become successful businessmen.
The Cons of the Igbo Trade Model
The Igbo apprenticeship system has received so much attention nationally and internationally. However, you would be wrong to assume that the model is without flaws or faults. For example, some businessmen avoid settling their servants by accusing them of wrongdoing. Some young men have allegedly quit their apprenticeship before completing the agreed period.
Why would anyone quite such a celebrated system? Well, roses are very beautiful but even with their charming beauty, they have thorns. Such is the case of this informal business model practiced in Nigeria. Below are some drawbacks of the Igbo business model that people hardly notice.
1. Lacks proper documentation
Usually, the Oga goes back to the village and picks a servant. This could be a relative or another person. But most parents believe in this informal model so much that they hardly value or realize the need for a well-documented agreement. Usually, they make a verbal agreement with the business owner.
At most, they ask respected elders to witness the handing-over event. Nonetheless, all that may not hold water if disagreements arise. Young innocent men have been victims of this negligence. Some are falsely accused of wrongdoing and thus sent away without any capital. Others are made to work beyond the agreed period or offered less than the initially agreed capital.
2. Human rights abuse
Other than learning how to trade, some trainees are turned into houseboys or even slaves. They overwork while living a life that is below generally accepted human standards. Some businessmen abuse their servants physically, verbally, or even sexually.
A day in the life of some apprentices starts with house chores before heading to the shop or office for business activities. After a hectic day, they get back home and continue with other house chores. Some are even denied access to phones.
3. The Igbo apprenticeship system is gender-sensitive
The generally accepted gender for this program is 99 percent male. Thus, the model is devoid of gender equality. Young girls particularly from needy family are left with slim chances of becoming successful later in life.
4. Settlement isn’t guaranteed
Some apprentices are known to have completed the agreed service period but their masters never gave them any capital to begin a business. The family or the servant never signs any formal agreement with the business owner. Thus, they cannot defend the case in a court of law. The long service ends in tears as there is no arbitration system whatsoever.
Overall, it is worth noting that the Igbo apprenticeship model has proven beyond doubt that it can eradicate extreme poverty, create wealth, and foster economic growth. Its drawbacks can be reduced or even eliminated by formalizing the system. Do you think the Igbo apprenticeship system should be adopted across Africa? We would love to hear your opinion. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.