The Igbos have long since developed their own home grown system of entrepreneurship.
This unique form of apprenticeship “Imu Olu” allows a male family or community member to spend time and work with another family member, usually a successful business man. During this period, the apprentice will learn the trade of his master and would also receive mentorship. At the end of the agreed stipulated period, the master will establish this apprentice; either by setting up a separate but similar business for him, or giving him the money or tools to earn a living.
Many people have achieved success and excellence in their businesses because their ‘Oga’ trained and settled them well. Many notable business moguls in Onitsha attribute their success to what they learnt as an apprentice. Apprenticeship offers the ‘Nwaboyi’ as they are fondly called, the opportunity to acquire business acumen, work attitude, how to deal with suppliers and customers, and interaction with other entrepreneurs. It provides contacts, networks and lessens the burden on the parents of the apprentice.
This system has helped to spread wealth from the rich to poor in Igbo communities; and many of the sucessful Igbo business men of today went through this system.
The general opinion held about ‘Imu Olu’ apprenticeship is that it’s for poor people whose parents most times can’t afford to take care of them or can’t afford formal education for their wards hence they are sent away to get an informal education and have a chance to escape poverty. This method of establishing young people, and training the unskilled has been very beneficial to the Igbos. In addition, it has helped youths from indigent homes to achieve excellence in what they do.
Today there are other variants of this model but regardless; they all involve an apprentice working with an experienced individual on some agreed terms to learn skills that will help them build their own businesses.
A classic example of a successful entrepreneurial business horned from apprenticeship is Sunny Nweze Investment Nig. LTD., a nationwide wholesale and retail dealers in quality leather products including shoes, bags, boxes, wears and ties. Sunny Nweze investment is owned by Ukwu Sunny Nweze, a successful trader and businessman who was gracious enough to talk to me about his foray into business as a fifteen year old boy who went to serve as an apprentice for his in-law.
Good day Sir, please tell us about yourself
Good day, my name is Ukwu Sunny Nweze.
Thank you so much for taking time off your busy schedule to talk to us, please tell me a little about your business
You’re welcome. As you can see, I’m a marketer, trader and dealer in quality products. We sell designer shoes, clothes, boxes, ties etc. Our products are very authentic; I travel outside the country to purchase these goods myself. My customers know me for quality and honesty, so far, God has been good.
Let us delve straight into the heart of this conversation; how was the time you spent as an apprentice?
Well, it’s such a long time ago, the early 1990s; people like you were still inside your mother’s womb *laughs*
Anyway, I think I was about fifteen years old at the time, my older sister got married to a successful trader at the time. I wanted to go to school, but there were no funds. My brother in-law offered to take me with them to Enugu, to feed and take care of me and hopefully teach me how to trade. My family saw this as a golden opportunity and did not hesitate. My education forgotten, I followed my sister and her husband to the city.
He was a successful trader in the then Ogbete main market. It was different back then. We lived at Achara Layout and I had to wake up every day by 4am to do my house chores like going to fetch water and also be at the shop before 7am. There were no buses or keke or Okada at the time so I would trek from Achara Layout to Ogbete to open and sweep the shop before my brother in-law arrived. I was not the only ‘Nwa boyi’ my brother in-law had, there were at least five of us. Some were there before me and I had to learn under them. I had to learn the names of designers, shoes, bags, and the price of wares, how to treat customers, how to haggle price, keep money safely and give account of everything. Back then shoes were sold for N300, N280 e.t.c
I gradually progressed and over the years when my brother in-law felt I had gotten a certain level of knowledge, he rented a shop for me at ogbete and kept me solely responsible. I gave him account at the end of every month and at the end of the year, give him back the money I made. From there, he would take me with him when going to buy new goods from Onitsha. I learnt how to hold money, banks were not very popular back then and you would have to carry large sums of money and travel. I met traders who brought goods from overseas. Some of them came down to Enugu, while some we had to go and meet at Onitsha.
Because I have managed my own shop for a while, I picked items according to what my customers always asked for; I was starting to diversify from my brother in-law because it was now two separate shops. I was loyal and hardworking and soon enough my brother in-law trusted me with the money to travel and buy on my own. If I keep going, we’ll both sit here till dusk.
In summary I served my brother in-law for twenty (20) years. When I was eventually ‘settled’ I started up my own business and I don’t need to tell you, you can see for yourself how well we are doing”.
With the surge in unemployment in Nigeria, considering the Nigerian education system, the general perception of apprenticeship must change. We need to take advantage of cultural models to build businesses in Nigeria. Just like the Igbos have built a reliable model of learning for communities through the apprenticeship scheme, it is time to imbibe a suitable apprenticeship scheme into Nigeria’s formal education system.
Countries like Germany and Switzerland have remarkable apprenticeship schemes that have resulted in a decreased unemployment rate. Switzerland, for example, operates a dual school system through its VET (Vocational Education and Training) program where students can learn in the classroom while working and earning on the job simultaneously. Apprentices in Switzerland work in small and large companies, hospital, banks, state of the art factories, insurance agencies e.tc.
Arguably, we already have a similar scheme in place, the six months or one year student’s Industrial Training (IT) but for sustenance and to tackle unemployment, the federal government should create a scheme for young people to be automatically recruited upon graduation – for instance at NYSC camp. Human Resource personnel can be mobilized at every NYSC camp across the country and as one is being registered, they are matched with a company where the skills acquired from the field of study will be required or needed.
These companies are then mandated by the federal government to absorb these individuals and impart knowledge through intensive training on the apprentices, and award a licence or certificate at the end of the training, if the company is satisfied the individual has been armed with enough knowledge to set up his own business. The federal government upon issuance of this certificate or licence settles the individual with appropriate funds.
The average Nigerian child is programmed to believe that formal education is the only path to a sustainable future. While formal education definitely has its benefits, it is obvious that it is clearly not enough in these present times. It is common for students to learn skills outside the school curriculum, but a lot more can be achieved if these two learning processes can be fused. The dual learning system in Switzerland and Germany proves this. If the Igbos can build a structure around informal learning to drive their entrepreneurial strides, then we as a country can build a formal education structure that imbibes apprenticeship if we work hard at it.
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