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Apprenticeship: The secret of business successes in Igbo land

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*It started by our fore fathers as farmers before traders emulated it
*Igbos took to apprenticeship because they lost everything during the civil war

Igbo apprentice. PHOTO Credit: Stear Business

By Anayo Okoli, Vincent Ujumadu, Chinenyeh Ozor, Peter Okutu, Chimaobi Nwaiwu, Chinedu Adonu, Chinonso Alozie & Ikechukwu Odu

ENUGU—THE age-long apprenticeship system in Igboland has contributed immensely to the progress of the legendary business acumen of the Igbo people.

This practice provides an opportunity for a young boy to learn a trade of his choice, including buying and selling, under the tutelage of a person who has already established in such trade or business.

Usually, a specific number of years is agreed upon which the tutelage would last, after which the master, taking into account how sincere or otherwise, the young man served him now settles him to start his own.

As an apprentice, his job in the house of his master is limitless as he also serves the wife of his master and other members of his family by doing other house shores, providing him with funds to start up his own business.

It is seen as an all-round training for the young boy. It requires a lot of patience and discipline. This age long practice has been very well managed by Igbos to the envy of other tribes. It has helped to create wealth for Ndigbo.

It has made persons from very poor homes, without any visible financial background become millionaires and billionaires.

However, this practice is dwindling as many young boys nowadays hardly have the patience to serve for years and be settled.

By the end of the civil war in 1970, with the attendant devastation, including schools that were destroyed, Igbos were faced with great difficulty of starting life afresh; resources to begin life again was not available as they have completely lost their means of livelihood to the war.

But life must continue, hence with little or nothing, many of them, even billionaires before the war, engaged in petty trading to survive, bearing in mind that the Igbo believe that no food for the lazy man. As they gradually stabilize, they took along younger ones to learn the trade.

According to Chief John Alumona, apprenticeship blossomed in Igbo land after the civil war which created sustainable raw initiation, incubation and training investment system which continues to grow as the only means of survival in the entire eastern region. This ensured the survival of Igbos.

Alumona explained that unable to return to schools, Igbos turned to pretty trade and other arts for survival.

The concept of apprenticeship has come to stay in Igbo land even though it is dwindling due largely to the fact that many of the boys prefer to go to school, but it still works well for those of them interested in going into buying and selling or learning one trade or the other.

It has worked very well and produced wealthy people in Igbos land. Many rich men in Igbo land passed through the period of apprenticeship. Youths whose parents and guardians could not afford post-primary and university education still embrace the system to learn any trade of their choice such as trading, mechanic, bricklaying, among others.

Chief Ezugwu James who owns a mechanic workshop in Nsukka said he had trained over 100 people under in his workshop. But he regrets that most of them abandoned the trade for Okada and Keke business. He lamented however, that youths of nowadays do not take apprentice serious as the urge to get rich quick has overiden the patience required in serving as apprentice.

“I have not less than 10 apprentices as I speak with you but hardly can any of them be serious. All their eyes are on money. Some will be absent for about a week or two without any excuse. They move to Adani community in Uzo-Uwani Local Government area to push barrow at the Ada Rice mill at the detriment of his apprenticeship and engaged in illicit hard drugs.

“Before now, an apprentice gets frightened on hearing the voice of his master and would never dare to be absent for any reason, but today, no master of any apprentice would dare to flog his apprentice as was the case in the past as part of the training,” Okpugbo said.

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Prominent businessman and Igbo leader, Ozo Anaekwe said the practice started from their fore fathers, who were farmers, and they took young people to serve them in their farms and after many years when the person was coming of age, he would be rewarded with some yams and a portion of his masters’ land to cultivate his own crops. From there, the young man develops and fends for himself.

Attributing its success to the Igbo spirit of being their brothers’ keeper, Anaekwe who disclosed that 41 boys have served him as apprentice drawn from the five Southeast states of Abia, Imo, Anambra, Ebonyi and Enugu States and he successfully settled them, explained that traders emulated them.

As an apprentice, they serve them, as part of education; in university, they call it marketing as a course, it is just like you are doing marketing in the university.

From the master, an apprentice will learn how to buy and sell and other trading activities and it gives a lot of employment to the young ones instead of being idle and loitering about and ending up getting into crime and other vices.

“Out over 41 apprentices that served me, only three were not settled and the reason was that they bought cars and sent to their villages and built houses in their respective communities while still serving me.

“Two of them are from Ohaozara in Ebonyi State, one of them built four rooms and parlour in their village, the other one built his own house and bought a bus while still serving me”.

According to him, “the number of apprentice one takes depends on how successful or wealthy you are.

“You can, for instance, go to a village and take up to five young boys, teach them how to trade and after some years, maybe five to seven years, they are given some money and in some cases, shops are rented for them to start up their own business and many of them had become very wealthy through this system.

“Other tribes are not as magnanimous like us on Igbo land and that is why they cannot do what we are doing.

“That is why they are not progressing in the business of buying and selling. They do not believe that a servant will one day become a master and it is reflecting in Nigerian leadership today.

“For us in Igbo land, we train people to even become richer than us, it is part of democracy, it is part of freedom for people to exist and live well.

“When you serve your master, he gives you freedom to go and try your own luck unlike others who will like you to be perpetual slave or servant to them.

“Those who are with power want to retain it and hand over to their children, while others will continue to be their servants and slaves and that is why the country is not working.

“Those who are leaders whether they are doing well or not, they want to pass leadership to their mediocre children in the midst of intellectuals that abound in the country who can do better, that is why Nigeria cannot progress and is not progressing”, Anaekwe said.

Mr George Ukwuaba provision merchant at Ogige Nsukka main market said that some of the apprentice are sincere and are entrusted with sales and even management on principles of honesty, accountability and work ethics.

A Lagos-based businessman, Maxwell Ojobo, said that the Igbos took to apprenticeship because they lost everything during the Nigerian civil war.

Ojobo, a clearing and forwarding agent in Lagos State who also trained many apprentices at Nnewi, Anambra State where he trades on motorcycle spare parts, further explained that the Igbos took to the humble beginning of learning different trades after the war as a way of survival and economic resuscitation.

He, however, regretted the hijack of the business model by some unscrupulous businessmen who heap allegations on their apprentice to evade their settlement, actions that have made some parents reluctant about leaving their children to serve as an apprentice.

Admitting that the model made most Igbos billionaires and major economic stakeholders in Nigeria, he added that it is still in practice today and has made the South East the envy of other regions in Nigeria in terms of economic development.

He urged the business owners to always settle any apprentice who served them diligently to ensure the continuity of the business model which grows many micro, small and medium-enterprises, MSME, in Nigeria.

A businessman, Mr Sunny Ikegwu, who deals in electronics and other gift items in Abakaliki, noted that youths nowadays want to be on their own as none of them is willing to submit to apprenticeship.

“Youths are more self-centered and are now prone to get-rich-quick syndrome. There is lack of moral rectitude among them.

“Getting any any of them to concentrate on apprenticeship is rare. The only ones who can undergo apprenticeship are the ones who have good moral background.

“I served someone before I became independent. How can you get a youth of nowadays to serve you for 6 to 7 years. It’s hard as that system of training is gradually eroding the society and the Igbo people.”

Also, in an interaction with the owner of a mechanic workshop at the Mechanic Village in Abakaliki, Mr. Thank God who explained how he grew from the ranks and established his own workshop after serving his former boss for over 7 years regretted that youths of this present dispensation were no longer willing to go through the process of apprenticeship and training in their chosen vocation.

According to him, what the youths of this present day are interested in is fast money as most of them are often times used by politicians during campaigns.

Enugu based businessman, Mr. Ikechukwu Ugwuogor said that Ndigbo excel in business after apprentice because of their courage and patience to serve their master.

“Our people were born to be strong. Our experience in business during apprentice will help to harness the inborn business idea. I left my father’s house to the Northern part of the country at the age of 12 to serve a man who heals from Aguata Local Government Area, Anambra State. I joined apprenticeship because I don’t have anybody to sponsor me to secondary school. Our agreement for the apprenticeship was 10 years. Two years is for testing before the agreement that will last for eight years”.

For Chike Uwandu, the apprenticeship system has remained the most viable ways through which young people have become wealthy even from a poor background.

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But he expressed worry that some young men who signed an agreement to learn work are not patient and meticulous to capture the secret of the job.

He said: “I must thank you for bringing up this topic. This is very important because our young people are more interested to do yahoo to make money fast rather than bend down and have a legitimate business giving them money.

“I learnt this job of laundry services and how to go to Cotonou to buy cloths and sell. I learnt it from my Oga who is doing the same business now along Douglas road.

“I did not stay up to a year I told my Oga that I can start the business on my own but we signed a year and six months. At first, he refused that it was not part of the agreement.

“I pleaded after several people intervened. To cut it short, I learnt the secret of the business which is very important I followed the rules and I was obedient that my Oga was so happy with me to teach me so many things that he did not teach others.

“So, what I am saying is that young men of these days are not ready to stay in one place and learn what will help them in life.”

Dwindling apprenticeship in Igbo land

Regrettably, apprenticeship in Igbo land had diminished in the past few years because of the changing orientation of the youths.

These days, many masters and their apprentice are known to be regular customers of some dangerous shrines to swear to the deity that they would not cheat each other. In some cases, tragic incidences had been recorded.

Worried by the dwindling apprenticeship scheme in Igbo land, a renowned business, Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, in 2019, decided to institute a research programme in the university with a view to finding out the genesis of the problem.

Through his Pro-Value Humanity Foundation, Okonkwo, who said he was once an apprentice in Onitsha before he travelled abroad to acquire education up to PhD level,, has sponsored a research at the Business School of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka to find out what led to the diminishing returns in apprenticeship in Igbo land.

The director of UNIZIK Business School, Professor Austin Nonyelu, while appreciating Okonkwo for the gesture, said researchers in the school would make the Onitsha Main Market the focal centre

“We shall provide for the traders intellectual capital to enhance their competitiveness globally. This research is therefore the beginning of the interface between the academic institution, the Business School in this instance, and the industry as represented by the consortium of traders, businesses and enterprises.

“This emerging relationship is quite timely given the deleterious state of the Nigerian economy characterized by multifarious problems including, but not limited to decreasing productivity, collapsing companies and businesses (most of the prominent and flourishing businesses we used to know in the seventies and eighties are no longer in existence), poor liquidity ratio, perennial devaluation of the national currency, growing unemployment even among graduates, hyperinflation, and widening poverty,” Nonyelu said.

Interestingly, leaders of the various markets in Igbo land have indicated interest to work with the UNIZIK Business School to re-enact the good old days of apprenticeship among the Igbo.

Vanguard News Nigeria.

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