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  A few years ago, in 2021, the Igbo apprenticeship system was introduced into the Harvard Business School curriculum and even appeared in the Harvard Business Review. This once localized system of indigenous practical business schools has now gained worldwide recognition and is even taught in business schools across the world and spoken of in Ted Talks. Therefore, what is the Igbo apprenticeship system? The Igbo apprentice system, alternatively known as the Igbo trade apprentice system and commonly referred to as ′Igba-Odibo/Igba-Boi/Imu-Ahia/Imu-Oru′, constitutes a framework of both formal and informal indentured agreements between involved parties, catalyzing burgeoning entrepreneurial communities within the Igbo society. Originating in South-Eastern Nigeria, this system has been widely practised among the Igbo people with the overarching goal of fostering economic growth, stability, and sustainable livelihoods by channelling investments into human resources through vocational training.
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The Igbo apprenticeship system represents an extension of the innate entrepreneurial spirit prevalent among the Igbo populace. It employs an induction strategy primarily geared towards inducting young individuals, mainly of Igbo descent, into various entrepreneurial ventures under the guidance of established entrepreneurs colloquially known as “Oga” within the local context. These ventures encompass a spectrum of trades, enterprises, vocations, and at times, domestic assistance roles. The Ogas, who themselves are former apprentices, play a pivotal role in transferring resources and knowledge to their mentees, thus enabling them to embark on their entrepreneurial journeys. Characterized by its informal nature, the system entails unstructured training programs aimed at equipping apprentices with the requisite skills needed to thrive independently.

Historical Context

The roots of Igbo entrepreneurialism can be traced back to the era of the transatlantic slave trade during the 15th century. Despite the harrowing circumstances of the slave trade, Igbo slaves were exposed to entrepreneurial activities through their interactions with slave owners engaged in trading commodities for export. This exposure ignited the entrepreneurial spirit within the Igbo community, prompting them to engage in various entrepreneurial endeavours during the pre-colonial era. With the advent of colonialism, the Igbo people emerged as leading exporters of commodities such as palm oil and kernel, craftsmen, traders, and merchants, thereby sustaining their culture of entrepreneurship. This enduring legacy has been perpetuated through the apprenticeship framework.

The Nature of the System

The apprenticeship training period encompasses the acquisition of diverse skills essential for entrepreneurial success, including technical, managerial, and interpersonal proficiencies. These skills range from forecasting and inventory control to communication, leadership, and marketing skills, among others. Apprentices are groomed to prioritize return on investment for enterprise expansion while maintaining a distinct separation between familial and business relationships. Such training is evident across various industries and sectors in which the Igbo community is involved, including transportation, manufacturing, commerce, ICT, and automotive sectors, among others. These mentees typically serve their masters between six and seven years.

Types of Apprenticeship

The Igbo apprentice system encompasses three primary types: Igba-boi (become an apprentice), Imu Oru (learn a craft), and Imu Ahia (learn a trade). While all types aim to impart entrepreneurial skills, they differ in their approach. Unlike Igba-boi, where mentorship is provided free of charge for a pre-agreed period, Imu Oru and Imu Ahia types involve the payment of tuition fees by the mentee or their sponsors.

Phases of Apprenticeship

The Igbo apprentice system operates through three main phases: Talent Identification, Scholarship, and Graduation. Talent identification begins within households, where potential mentees are identified based on entrepreneurial aptitude or the inability to pursue further formal education. Subsequently, mentees undergo a scholarship period during which they receive training in entrepreneurial skills and are immersed in the mentor’s enterprise environment. Graduation marks the culmination of the program, with mentees receiving capital from their mentors to initiate their ventures.

Evolution and Adaptation

The system has evolved, particularly with the influx of Europeans and the introduction of new craftsmanship during the Industrial Revolution. This led to the emergence of new job fields, prompting the expansion of apprenticeship opportunities beyond traditional family enterprises. Consequently, distinctions such as “Imu-Oru Aka” (learning a craft or skill) and “Imu-Ahia” (learning to trade) were introduced, reflecting the evolving nature of Igbo entrepreneurship.
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Despite its efficacy, the Igbo apprentice system faces several challenges, including low age and educational entry barriers, lack of formal training and certifications, inadequate teaching skills among mentors, limited access to startup funding, and the absence of written contracts for legal and regulatory backing.

Growing and Innovating the System

Innovation is crucial for the continued success of the Igbo apprenticeship system. One key aspect is the formalization of training. While hands-on experience remains invaluable, incorporating workshops, mentorship programs, or even online courses could provide apprentices with a more structured learning experience. Collaboration with vocational schools or universities could offer standardized certifications, enhancing the value proposition for young people. Furthermore, standardized contracts could replace informal agreements. These contracts should clearly outline the rights and responsibilities of both parties, including the duration of the apprenticeship, training expectations, financial arrangements, and a dispute resolution mechanism. This would not only protect both apprentice and master but also provide greater transparency and peace of mind. Financial constraints are another area demanding innovation. Traditionally, apprentices rely on their masters for capital to launch their ventures upon graduation. Microloan programs or grant initiatives specifically designed for graduating apprentices could offer a crucial financial springboard. Additionally, crowdfunding platforms could provide new avenues for securing startup capital. Technology also holds untapped potential. Integrating online tools for communication, inventory management, marketing, and e-commerce could significantly improve efficiency and access to new markets. Masters could utilize online platforms to connect with a wider customer base, while apprentices could learn valuable digital marketing skills. This would equip them to compete effectively in the modern business landscape. Finally, expanding beyond traditional trades is crucial. While the system has thrived in commerce, encouraging apprenticeships in emerging sectors like technology, renewable energy, or healthcare could create new and exciting career paths. Partnerships between established businesses and universities in these fields could pave the way for innovative apprenticeship programs catering to the demands of the 21st century.
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Embracing these innovations does not necessitate abandoning the core values of the Igbo apprenticeship system. The emphasis on dedication, hard work, and respect remains essential. However, by incorporating structured training, standardized contracts, financial options, and technology, the system can equip young people with the necessary skills and resources to succeed in the modern world. Furthermore, broadening the scope of trades beyond the traditional crafts can open doors to exciting new career paths.

Closing Remarks

In conclusion, the Igbo apprenticeship system has a rich history and continues to be a valuable tool for economic empowerment. By embracing innovation while remaining true to its core principles, this time-tested system can be revitalized to empower future generations and maintain its position as a cornerstone of Igbo economic success. It can serve as a model for fostering entrepreneurial spirit and cultural values in a globalized world, offering valuable lessons for other communities seeking to cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship and mentorship.
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This article was first published on 2nd April 2024


Nnaemeka is an academic scholar with a degree in History and International Studies from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He is also a creative writer, content creator, storyteller, and social analyst.

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