On Sunday, March 20, 2022, Daily Trust published a report titled ‘Declining glory of Igbo apprenticeship system that bred billionaire bizmen,’ bringing to the fore the state of Igba boi, the cultural and economic scheme, whereby, young Igbo boys are sent to learn trades or skills from a ‘master’ for a period ranging from six to eight years after which he is ‘set up’.
Generally called the Igbo Apprenticeship System (IAS), it is touted as a practical transfer of experience and wealth to younger generations with the beneficiaries expected to be successful as they imbibe and practice the values and ethics taught during their apprenticeship years.
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The setup hasn’t changed. It entails the boss who owns a shop, warehouse or craft getting young boys from the village to work for him for free while he provides accommodation, feeding and training. At the end of the agreed period and after learning the rudiments of the business, the young boy is given goods or money or both to start his own business. With time, the settled boy returns to his village to pick his own boy(s) to train, thus raising the next generation.
It had been part of the Igbo culture for centuries and had enabled young men to acquire lifelong skills such as running and nurturing businesses and building value chains. But it came into prominence after the civil war as it produced the bulk of Igbo multi-billionaires, including Chairman of Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company Limited, Chief Innocent Chukwuma; CEO of Coscharis Group, Cosmas Maduka; CEO of Ibeto Group of Companies, Chief Cletus Madubugwu Ibeto and CEO of Chikason Group, Chief Alexander Chika Okafor.
It was this system that helped the Igbos to emerge from the 1967-70 civil war and managed to recover a significant portion of their pre-war economic status within a few years.
Using the system of Igba boi they built up, the scheme became so popular that it got approved by Harvard Business Review (HBR) as “stakeholder capitalism, not just shareholder capitalism”, which helps members of the community, the community itself and everyone involved.
In 2020, at a National Summit on Igbo Apprenticeship on the theme: “Repositioning the Igbo Apprenticeship Scheme for Sustainable Economic Development,” Vice President Yemi Osibanjo described it as the most popular indigenous business initiative in Nigeria’s economic institution and recognized as the world’s largest business incubator.
Unfortunately, like many things in Nigeria, the national malaise has set in on the scheme, especially with the devaluation of family values and an unbridled quest for quick money and materialism. It is indeed declining as a major source of preparation of future leaders in trades and businesses.
The CEO of the United Nigeria Airlines Company Limited, Dr Obiora Okonkwo, lamented the near extinction of ‘Igba boi,’ tracing it to the moral and ethical decay in society and the erosion of some fundamental values like honesty, discipline, diligence and hard work, and the lack of patience to learn requisite skills that are pervasive among today’s youths.
In 2020, worried by the decline, Dr Okonkwo instituted a N15 million research grant at the UNIZIK (Nnamdi Azikiwe University) Business School (UBS) to do research and investigate the factors responsible for the decline and make recommendations for its revival.
From all indications, this system has no in no small measure helped the people of that region and society as a whole. In fact, it is curious that at a time when the rate of unemployment in the country is high, we are talking about a decline in such a laudable practice. What we should be seeing instead is a growth in the practice with people from other parts of the country borrowing and implementing it.
The Igbo Apprentice System must not be allowed to die as it builds business ecosystems using cultural models, and provides mentorship and early training on entrepreneurship mindset. It is a major platform for employment and serves as a major avenue for the redistribution of wealth and reduction of inequality among the people.
In fact, this cultural and economic scheme needs a reorientation among the new crop of young men and their benefactors and their families. For a scheme that has been resilient for centuries, what is required is the honesty of the old whereby the benefactor treated all his boys fairly and taught them all they needed to know in exchange for their full adherence with all the loyalty, honesty and obedience that is required. It demands that parents prepare their children to live a life of obedience, loyalty, diligence and resilience, major attributes required as young boys go through the scheme.
The five South East governors should call a stakeholders meeting involving traditional, religious, cultural, business and political leaders, including youth and women groups on ways of sustaining this noble initiative. They should use the recommendations of the UNIZIK Business School research and investigations as a way of reviving and sustaining the system.