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Parties after-parties in my village, everyone who comes home at the end of the year seems to have money to splurge. Those in the village think that everyone makes it in the big cities. Even though these statements are totally false, it is inspired by a vague lifestyle and events only seen during the usual and annual Igbo Christmas homecoming celebrations. With all these, there is a deeper urge to make it big when you’re from such Igbo villages.  So Akubata with very little formal education sets out to that expedition of success too. With nothing but a dream of making it big and coming back home to build a big house and then contribute to his home community, he sets out to a big city for fortune. He left the village with the last night bus going to Lagos just after Christmas!

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Immediately he got down from the long bus trip, hustle started. By daybreak after sleeping in the park, he walked up to one of the guys hawking Gala in traffic and in about an hour, they seemed to get along well.  One of them is Chisom; Aku’s new friend. Chisom was willing to take him to Mr Hakeem who deals in the wholesale and distribution of table water and soft drinks. Chisom stands as a surety to have Aku’s first consignment on credit.  That same day, they form a tag team (with Aku selling soft drinks and the friend selling Gala, both complementary products that need each other from a consumer behaviour’s POV). Daily, Aku was on the busy road of Lagos struggling with other hawkers to sell to the passengers in the bus and individuals in their cars. Luck shone on him from the first day, as he successfully sold 15 packs of table water that day. The struggle continued for over 6 months with Aku scaling up from one product to the other, yet he insisted that he wouldn’t go back to his village unless he was successful.

The trend continued for about 3 years before Aku met Mr Ikenna who deals in the sales of electronic appliances. After 2 years of apprenticeship, Aku secured his own little shop at Alaba International Market, same as his boss and he started off fully. In order to ensure the smooth operations of his business, Aku travelled back to his village after about 4 years of rigorous struggle to scout for young boys who will serve as an apprentice to him. And in about 8 months, one of them, Ebuka, had gotten a shop for himself too. And that’s how the trends go on and on. But wait, where did all these start from?

In the world of Economics, we have experienced aged-longed economic playbooks which have laid a successful economic model that has been adopted and practised by many companies across the world, while some disruptive companies created their economic playbooks with the likes of Toyota, Amazon, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, General Electric etc. Great economist authors have written several playbooks with the likes of Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nation), Eric Ries (The Lean Startup Methodology), Jim Collins (Built to Last and Good to Great), Peter Thiel (Zero to One) and so on. Business Ecosystems have created their playbooks like the Silicon Valley playbook but one intriguing fact is that these playbooks build an economy that is monopolistic in nature. This suits the Western world and the rest of the world, except Africa. 

Today, we will be looking at a business model practised by the Igbo nation, which has made Africa successful and has endured age-long philosophy. 

The Igbo Apprenticeship Model that is practised mostly by the Igbo tribe in the Southern part of Nigeria has been one of the most successful business models ever to be invented. A business model where the apprentice becomes a competitor to his boss that plays more as a mentor; yet they’re both successful. This business model can be referred to as ‘Imu ahia’ known as learning the trade, ‘Igba boi’ known as an apprentice or ‘imu oru’ known as learning the craft.

It is an unpaid system business incubation system which allows someone to learn a trade for a period of time (2 to 7 years) depending on the type of trade and apprenticeship agreement. At the end of the service, the apprentice gets cash infusion, guidance and support to kick-start their business from their master. Mostly here, the master provides basic amenities like housing, feeding, even medication. Here, a successful businessman goes back to the village to pick or look for young boys who will work under him in his business while he teaches them how to make wealth.

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Let’s explore a case study. It is that of a small Igbo town called Nnewi. Nnewi according to the Forbes Magazine has bred more billionaires than any other town in Africa (It’s the hometown of  Cletus Ibeto of Ibeto Cements, Cosmas Maduka of Coscharis,  Chika Okafor of A-Z Petroleum, Ilodibe of Ekene Dili Chukwu Transports,  Ifeanyi Ubah of Capital Oil, Innocent Chukwuma of Innoson and hundreds more. But why are they so successful? Is it something about where they are from? Absolutely yes! 

It’s about their Igbo apprenticeship model, their culture and the ability to support each other to the top. It’s something about their thoughts and dispositions that fuel their drive. It’s about their associations too. The Igbo apprentice model is built on Grit, Street Smartness, Trust and honesty, Competency, Accountability, and Discipline. Here the master assigns an outlet or shop to him to manage out of his master’s watch with other apprentices under him. He gives reports to his master directly. The apprentice in this phase gets to learn skills that will actually propel and drive him in his own business. He is now a master of his own operating an arm of his master’s conglomerate.

The Problems Of The Apprenticeship System are:

  1.  The system has low age and educational entry barrier and lacks formal training and certifications.
  2. Lack of teaching skills by most masters or ‘Ogas’ deter pupils from apprentice training completion.
  3. Lack of guaranteed access to startup funding after apprenticeship training completion due to general economic conditions.
  4. Lack of written contract to enable legal and regulatory backing by the government or its agencies.
  5. Innate interests, ability, and capability of the apprentice are not primary considerations when matching pupils with their masters.
  6. General belief that apprenticeship is for persons from poor households and unable to cope with formal education.

The Igbo apprentice model is a subset of the Igbo Ideology of wealth sharing. This is also a part of the larger Ubuntu leadership style and culture in Africa. This Igbo cultural philosophy or ideology is known as ‘Umunnannwezuoaku’ which in its literal form means community wealth. This philosophy states that the wealth of a man is a wealth for the community. That a man is obliged to teach his brothers the secrets of wealth, in other to create an even and balanced community.

It is also further broken down into  ‘Akuruno’ which is gotten from the Igbo adage ‘Aku ruo uno amara onye kparaya’ . This translates as ” Making wealth get home, so people will know who owns it”. This ideology compels a man to take home his wealth and also his village for the wellbeing of others. This system is designed for a man to take out his family from poverty, then show off his arrival, add value and in that process inspire others too. This model has some core distinction from other business models, which requires no capital, no equity and a lot of simplicity. It should be thought in our schools.

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This article was first published on 17th October 2020

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