The Igbo Apprenticeship system is practised mostly by the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria. It is a business philosophy of shared prosperity where an apprentice not only doubles as an apprentice and mentee but also as a competitor. Yet, they are both successful. 

“Akụ Ruo ụlọ, a mara onye kpara ya”  When wealth gets home, people will know who made it —  Igbo Proverb

This Igbo apprenticeship system is divided into 3 different types: 

Ịgba Boi – This is the most popular type of apprenticeship system. It involves an apprentice who not only is learning a business or artisanry under a master but also lives with his master and performs domestic duties for him and his family at home.

A ‘Boi’ or ‘Nwa boi’ usually spends years under the tutelage of the master, and at the end of his apprenticeship, his master is required to settle him.

The ‘boi’ is usually brought from his village at a young age to the town to learn the business or artisanry. The Ịgba boi serves as his form of formal education.

Ịmụ ahịa – This involves an apprentice learning how to do a business over a specified period of time. In this case, the apprentice goes up to the master and seeks to learn the business from him.

The apprentice here is usually older than his master and already has some level of education, sometimes, up to tertiary level. The master here is not obliged to settle the apprentice at the end of the learning period. 

  • Ịmụ ọrụ – This is just like ịmụ ahịa, except that here, the apprentice is learning some type of artisanry or skilled job such as painting, welding, tailoring, carpentry and so on.

MoneyRise talked to Obinna and Niggar Raw, both former apprentices at the Oyingbo market in Lagos about the apprenticeship system and how it changed their lives.

Obinna explained that the apprenticeship system was designed to take a man and his family out of poverty. He lives his life every day thanking his former master for taking him from Nnewi. Today, he is his own master, with 2 boys serving under his tutelage.

Igbo apprenticeship system
One of Obinna’s apprentices

What is the Igbo Apprentice system? 

The Igbo apprenticeship system is a three-stage system that begins with the integration of the process of the master going to the village to pick a young boy that will assist him in his business. The young boy is then introduced into the business. 

The next stage is the incubation stage which offers the apprentice the opportunity to learn the business models. He is trained and nurtured on how to address customers and sell goods.

Speaking to Niggar Raw, he says honesty, accountability and work ethics remain the core principles of the incubation stage. The final stage is the funding stage. This is when the master settles the apprentice to begin his business. 

According to Niggar Raw, the Apprenticeship System is a model that allows someone to learn a trade for some time, usually between 2-7 years depending on the age of the apprentice and the type of apprenticeship agreement. 

Niggar Raw’s elder brother was his master, and he served under him for five years before he was settled. 

In his words, “I apprenticed for 5 years, but there are some of us who apprenticed for up to 8 years. It all depends on the master you have. People apprentice for masters who are not even from their state.

Many people from Enugu apprentice for Anambra people a lot, especially people from Nnewi”

Obinna recounts his experience as a ‘Boi Boi”. He had served for 7 years before his master settled him.

He defines the model as a system in which a businessman goes back to his village, picks a young boy who will work under him in the business.

The businessman, in turn, teaches him how to make wealth- a system of teaching them how to fish instead of just giving them fish. 

Brief History of The Igbo Apprenticeship system

It all began with the Nigerian civil war between the Nigerian Government and the Igbos who fought to secede from the Nigerian state.

The war lasted for 30 months, and by the end, so many Igbos who thrived before the war started lost everything. 

After the Civil war, a banking policy evolved which nullified any bank account which had been operated during the Civil War. 

According to Chinua Achebe, this had the immediate result of pauperizing the Igbo middle class.

Furthermore, the Indigenization Decree which followed soon afterwards completed the routing of the Igbo from the commanding heights of the Nigerian economy. 

In a bid to build back all that was lost, the Igbos created the apprenticeship system as a way of helping each other survive the fallouts of the war.

Professor Ndubuisi Ekekwe summarises it by saying “The Igbos came out of the Biafra war in 1970, with their assets largely frozen and with little to begin post-war lives. Many Igbo communities started community leagues to build schools and clinics, and elders pushed men to share opportunities to help their brethren. Over decades, that spirit has resulted in enduring economic wealth”.

How The Igbo Apprenticeship System Creates Wealth  

A guiding principle and philosophy among the Igbo people are ‘Onye aghala nwanne ya’, which loosely translates to ‘may one never leave their brother behind”.

This philosophy explains that the wealth of a man is wealth for the community, and a man is obligated to teach his brothers the secrets of wealth, to create an even and balanced community. 

According to a report by Forbes, Nnewi, a town in Anambra has bred more Naira billionaires than any other town in Nigeria. And the Igbo apprenticeship model remains the major reason for that. 

So, when an Igbo business person becomes successful, the next course of action is to take the wealth back home by seeking a ‘Nwa boi’ to establish him.

Once the Nwa boi graduates and is settled, he pays what his master has done for him forward by picking another apprentice that will serve him.

At the same time, before his graduation, his master would have gone home to pick another apprentice who would learn the trade before his settlement, thereby creating a circle of wealth. 

Through this system, many millionaires are waiting to be born, and are either being ingratiated, incubated or funded.

Settlement and the Importance of Prayer. 

Settlement occurs at the end of the apprenticeship period where the apprentice under the Igbo apprenticeship model a Nwa Boi receives a cash infusion from his master to support or kick-start his own business.

This cash support is known as settlement. Settlement differs depending on the master, how much he can afford considering how well his business performs and how well the apprentice has served him.

Niggar Raw got 300,000 Naira and a shop from his elder brother. 

Obinna, on the other hand, received prayers from his master whose business was not doing well when it was time for his settlement. 

It is quite interesting to note that both of them agree that blessings from the master are important. Obinna says the significance of prayers cannot be overlooked. He used himself as an example; he got only prayers but today, has a shop and two boys working under him.

On the other hand, some boys didn’t receive blessings from their masters, which has caused them to leave the market and are doing considerably worse. 

Igbo Apprentice system

It Is Not All Rosy

Niggar Raw talks about how some masters turn their apprentices into “Boi Boi” by making them do menial tasks.

In his words, “At home, the job of the ‘boi’ continues as it also includes doing house chores. You’ll fetch water and if your master has a car, you’d wash it and still help out the wife with other work. 

When I was a ‘boi’, I used to leave the shop by 6 pm and get home by 7 pm; then I’d grab the gallons to go fetch water and we used to live in a 3 storey. 

It’s all about respect and hard work to help your master’s business be a success so that in the end, you’ll be settled properly by your master. 

Obinna says there is a lack of guaranteed access to startup funding. He recounts stories of many hardworking apprentices that weren’t settled because the business of the master was not doing well at the time of the apprentice’s settlement.

With the Igbo Apprenticeship model, the Igbo people have been able to build collective wealth. However, in the future, there is a call for reforms in the system that would provide better protection to the young people that are apprentices.

There are also calls for the government to scale and integrate it into its efforts for youth development and poverty alleviation.

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