Geoffrey Anyanwu, Awka, Jeff Amaechi Agbodo, Onitsha, Okey Sampson, Aba and Obinna Odogwu, Abakaliki
A certain anonymous material circulating on the social media, which tried to capture the resilient character of the Igbo, said their apprenticeship system has produced more millionaires than the entire university system in Nigeria.
According to the material, “The Igbo man gets rich; goes to the village, picks village boys, trains them in business, settles them, the boys become rich, go to the village; do the same thing…It’s not magic.”
It is no magic indeed; apprenticeship is the secret of the business prowess of the Igbo. After the desolation of the Nigeria-Biafra war and its terrible legacy of scattered grounds in Eastern Nigeria, the Igbo could not return to their homes or schools. Thus they turned to the alternative -business.
It was the apprenticeship system that practically revived several ‘kwasiokored’ children, wiped away their tears and returned life to many homes and communities to the consternation of the world.
A recent documentary by an international media described the Igbo apprenticeship system that governs the Alaba International Market, in Lagos state, as “the largest business incubator platform in the world.” A CNN documentary on the Ariaria market, Aba in Abia state, which also highlighted the Igbo apprenticeship scheme, has continued to get traction.
Investigation showed that apprenticeship in Igbo land started partly as a result of owners of small businesses who might not have the resources to go into formal employment of people to work for them. Then, they decided to engage the services of young men to help them in their businesses. After a given period, say five years or less, the young man is settled to be on his own – what in their business parlance is called “freedom.” Before this will happen, there must be an oral agreement between the parents of the apprentice (Nwa-Boy) and the trader. Apart from trading, there is another form of apprenticeship, those who learn other trades such as tailoring, auto mechanic and the rest.
Unfortunately, over the years, trading apprenticeship, which is more or less a culture of the Igbo, has started waning. While some business owners appear not to see the need to engage the services of apprentices, many youths do not have the urge to serve anybody again; they prefer the quick means of getting money.
The get-quick syndrome as exemplified by the activities of online fraudsters otherwise known as ‘Yahoo-Yahoo’ and the likes; the unpalatable influence of politicians who use the youth as thugs and hangers on, particularly in the last two decades, and the urge for white collar jobs, have jointly dealt a deadly blow on the once cherished prowess of Igbo business model.
In the villages, many young men now prefer to follow politicians who sometimes distribute motorcycles and other hand-outs to them, in the name of empowerment, instead of taking to the old noble path of apprenticeship.
In fact, the head of the South East zonal office of the Economic and financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Usman Imam, recently appealed to parents in the zone to take up their God-given responsibility of monitoring their children or wards.
He lamented that Internet fraud was becoming very alarming in the zone and needed urgent attention to save the future of the youth.
“From investigations so far made, it is unfortunate that some parents are not only aware of their children’s involvements but even abet such terrible crime.
“What is very worrisome is that most of the perpetrators of these crimes are students of higher institutions, graduates, youth corps members and secondary school students who are already learning the ropes from their elders in the nefarious business. To think that these criminals are those who will in future take up the responsibility of leading this country must certainly send shivers down the spine of any right thinking Nigerian,” Imam lamented.
Delivering a lecture at the second international conference of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Business School, Awka, Anambra State, recently, renowned entrepreneur and Chairman of The Dome Entertainment Limited, Dr. Obiora Okonkwo said: “Apprenticeship is where you have a business shop in Onitsha, you have your niece, you have your nephew, they work with you, you give them money, they start their own, they take another person and then that money continues to multiply.
“When it was effective in our society, we didn’t have these problems. Everybody was engaged. Today, people now decide to go to the university, what do they come up with? Cultism, fake expectations about life, they feel it’s no more good thing to go to the market.”
Chairman of Polema Industries, a vegetable oil outfit based in Aba, Abia State and former chairman of Aba Industrialists Association (AIA), Chief Emma Obi, in giving insight into the apprenticeship system of the Igbo, described it as an arrangement that came as a necessity and then became a culture and norm of Igbo traders.
Obi said the practice is dying because some traders have noticed that dishonesty has become the order of the day.
“The boys of nowadays can liquidate their masters by stealing their money gradually since they do not have real and formal process of accounting. They do business on trust and when these apprentices come, the whole business is handed over to them and before you knew it, he has abused that trust and stolen his master blind,” he said.
He attributed the waning interest of most Igbo youths in apprenticeship to the level of corruption and stealing that is going on in government in Nigeria. “This has affected the sync of a lot of people, particularly the youths. When someone you came out from school with and perhaps you were better than while in school, suddenly finds himself in government as a politician, before you know it, he has so corruptly enriched himself that you will find it difficult to go and serve someone in order to start your life.
“There is every tendency that you will like to find your own way and be like him. This has also led many people into various fraudulent activities in an attempt to meet up and be like others.”
Proprietor of Gabson Aluminium Enterprises, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, Gabriel Igwe, who said that he was once an apprentice before he opened his own business, noted that some of the challenges that he encountered during his apprenticeship still exist till date.
He mentioned lack of ‘pocket money’ to take care of the personal needs of the apprentice and transport as two major challenges that he faced.
“Based on my own experience, I think a few things can be done to improve this. Government should come into it and see how it could remodel it. It is government that can assist the traders and the apprentices,” Igwe said.
In Abakaliki, an apprentice, Chinedu Nwafor, said that the agreement between him and his master was that he would ‘serve’ the dealer on clothing for five years, and he already spent about three years. He said although there were few challenges, he was able to surmount them as his master, whom he said is his kinsman, treats him well.
In Onitsha, Anambra state, there is a decline in apprenticeship in the major markets, primarily due to the quest for education and the tendency of non-settlement of apprentices after years of service.
President of Bridgehead Markets Association, Chief Sunday Obinze, said only few boys were in the markets for apprenticeship, leaving the job for sales girls.
According to him, those who would want to do business these days would first want to go to school, and some of them even to the university.
“Before now, immediately a boy finished his primary school, he would be given out for apprenticeship while some became apprentices after secondary school. But today, they would like to go to school and become graduates before coming to do business. So, in our markets, you will find out that some traders are graduates. The business owners now use the girls to fill up the gap as sales girls who are being paid monthly.”
An apprentice trader in Onitsha Main Market, Toochukwu Atama said the attitude of some big men or business owners made parents not to give out their boys again for apprenticeship.
According to him, 60 per cent of the boys that did apprenticeship would not be settled by their bosses at the end of the seven to eight-year service agreement, noting that the bosses would cook up one allegation or the other and sack them.
“That is why most parents now struggle to send their children to school to lay a good foundation for them. I’m here not on full-time apprenticeship, I’m here to learn the trade and after one year, I will start my own, no matter how small, so that nobody will waste my eight years at the end and tag me a thief,” he said.
Worried by the crumbling pillar of the Igbo business model, Dr. Obiora Okonkwo recently instituted a chair at the Unizik Business School, to document the beginning, the growth and development of entrepreneurship at the Onitsha main market, which at a time, was the largest market in West Africa.
Okonkwo who noted that the research would, among other things, see to the resuscitation of the apprenticeship system, was optimistic that it would give the roadmap for the economic recovery of Igboland.
“There was no business school before then but we had Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu. He ruled the whole business world at his own time. There was no business school here but we had Ekene Dili Chukwu. He topped the transport company at his own time. There was no business school here but we have Coscharis who started off here in Anambra State. Just name them, Innoson, and so on. They all started off here in Anambra State.
“So, now we do ask ourselves. Few of those people I have just mentioned belong to the fourth generation. So what happened to the Ekene Dili Chukwus? We still hear about General Motors; we still hear about Mercedes, we still hear about Tata. Those are individual names or people who started business. We still hear about Guinness, what happened to Nwankwu, the GMOs and the rest of them?
“What happened to Vincent Standards, the man I worked with briefly before I travelled overseas? By the time I was a young boy in his company, I know in a month I could sign cheques of over N30 million for importation of different items.
“These men that made this so much mark did not go to school. Now that we have some of their children go to international schools in France, American Business School, we have universities where people are trained to be good business managers, why are we not making better progress? That is the challenge I’m giving to this Unizik Business School.
“I want to fund a research with this Business School so that they will help us study what was the magic of those big names? What were the problems and what could we do to recreate the magic in the activities? With more intellectual support, this would be the reason for our success,” Okonkwo enthused.
To the Director, Unizik Business School, Prof. Au. Nnonyelu, “the Igbo apprenticeship scheme is resonating even globally, so a Business School in Anambra State must be involved.
“You can’t talk about the entrepreneurship of the Igbo and their entrepreneurial power, what they’ve done nationally without looking at the history and the strata of Igbo apprenticeship scheme which they have been able to do from generation to generation and have taken it up all over the place. People are beginning to talk about it even in America, Europe and in Asia, as a model for other groups, nationalities, ethnic groups to copy.
“So, it’s good that somebody is talking about it like Dr. Obiora Okonkwo is doing, particularly with respect to funding the research because it is something that you need to do an empirical work on, quantitative and qualitative research to be able to get all the things you want to get. So it’s commendable.”
He also urged that these indigenous economic and social practices that are sustainable in future should be pursued with vigour.