One morning when I was a young kid growing up in Aba, some people came with an uncle to talk to my father. A man I didn’t know came with the visitors. The man owned a pharmaceutical business in Lagos and wanted to take my uncle's young son to be his apprentice. That day, he came with his people to see my father as the older brother to the boy's father. My father welcomed them and called for Kolanuts as it is the Igbo ritual. They decided the boy's fate, or rather his future, as they ate the Kolanut. My father agreed with the apprenticeship idea. Five years later my uncle's son returned as a made man. He was doing well because his master settled him for his five-year service.
This is the system that the Igbo use to create employment. For long, apprenticeship has been the backbone of Igbo business culture. Young men and women serve someone to gain knowledge of a particular business and then setup theirs with help from the master. Some of these apprentices are people who have capital to start a business but lack the business knowledge. Others have the knowledge but lack the capital while some are just unemployed. In all instances, the solution is to serve someone who is into the same line of business and is able to set them up on completion of the apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship among the Igbos helps both the master and servant. The master gets loyal extra hands while the apprentice learn the business and get settled after their service year(s). The master helps them establish their own business with the money he pays them as settlement. Some masters even connect their trainees with international contacts to help them be firmly established enough to operate independently. This system ensures there are more people doing a particular line of businesses and knowledge is passed on. It reduces the rate of business failure since young/new entrepreneurs get the requisite knowledge before setting up the business.
If you visit popular markets like Alaba International Market, Trade Fair, Idumota, Lagos Island, Onitsha main Market, Upper Iweka, Ariaria International Market, Nnewi Spare Parts Market and many other places, you will find scores of Igbo men and women running businesses with young men and women serving and learning the secrets of those businesses with the aim of owning theirs in the future. For Instance, Emeka, a merchant who has boys and girls serving him, imports from China. He shows these boys and girls how to run and manage his kind of business. They learn how to discover, enlarge, control and direct the market. Most importantly, he passes all of his financial and business education to his boys and girls in a language they understands and in a manner that universities may not give them. Emeka also has a plan to settle his apprentices when their time is up.
The Igbo apprentice system creates a network of traders who are independent and have practical financial management knowledge, zero-capital entrepreneurship skills, principles of local and international trading and people management. This knowledge, which can hardly be gotten in a university, saves them from the costly trial-and-errors business methods and risky experiments that can decimate capitals and ruin investments.
The Igbo apprenticeship system also has a way of checking bad masters. It equates the measure of a man with how well those under him fare. There are villages where a master who failed to establish his apprentices or has ex-apprentices not excelling in the business cannot speak in certain places. It is a mark of his own failure if they fail and an honour if they are progressing. A very good example is Arochukwu where a wealthy man must begin by mentioning some sons of the land he has helped established as former apprentices before elders permit him to speak .
Considering the foregoing, I strongly believe that Nigeria can make a headway in tackling unemployment and lowering the rate of startup failure in Nigerian by aligning the Igbo apprenticeship system with modern forms of apprenticeship that exists in many businesses in Nigeria as internship. Too many youths are idle and unable to sustain businesses, even when given the capital to do so. They will certainly fare better if exposed to the effective apprenticeship system which does not require raising huge capital. It is a fact that most Igbo business are started on lean budgets.
The Nigerian government can work out a semi-formal arrangement based on the Igbo apprenticeship system that is the mainstay of South-East Nigeria. It does not need much to empower the system because its products are ready to create value in the market. They are trained to be inventors in many business areas. Interestingly, most of them are not uneducated. While they may not all be university graduates, many have various levels of formal education with certifications and only decided to learn a trade after being unemployed for a long time. To them, acquiring business skills by serving someone positions them to better their economic fortunes as independent business owners. The evidence proves them right.
Do you not wonder why there is no Nigerian market that thrives without Igbo traders and their apprentices trying to break new grounds while enriching themselves? It is simply the Igbo apprentice system at work. If it is empowered, the Nigerian economy will benefit in many ways.
Pulse Contributors is an initiative to highlight diverse journalistic voices. Pulse Contributors do not represent the company Pulse and contribute on their own behalf.
About the author: JOHN CHIZOBA VINCENT is a writer, actor, filmmaker and literary promoter. He is the curator of the “Boys Are Not Stones’ anthology series, a boy-child advocacy initiative. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.