At any given time, you might find a Twitter thread or an article detailing the brilliance of the Igbo apprenticeship system, locally reffered to as “Igba boy.”
Igba Boy is a cost-effective business education system that became popular within people from Eastern Nigeria after the Nigerian Civil war. According to Wikipedia, the system was developed “In a quest to survive the £20 policy which was proposed by Obafemi Awolowo that only £20 be given to every Biafran citizen to survive on regardless of what they had in the bank before the war and the rest of the money were held by the Nigerian government.”
The Igbo's apprenticeship program is the only 'MBA' class in the world that teaches the real intricacies of running a business, the practical application of SWOT and PESTEL analysis. And when you graduate, they'll give you seed capital to start the business.
A system that works.
— Arinze Odira (@CaptainArinze) October 6, 2020
The system basically revolves around the conventional apprenticeship model where an experienced businessman takes in a much younger person to teach him the nuts and bolts of his trade; for what could run up to 7 to 8 years before providing the apprentice with a settlement and setting them up in their own business. It may have worked in the past, but it is not a healthy or adaptable system in recent times.
First of all, it would make sense to glamorise an alternative educational system outside of the four walls of a business school. After all, these apprentices actually do get the opportunity to pick up on the most intricate means to which business is run on both local and international level from people who learnt more by experience and less by theory. What they however don’t get is a fair and highly beneficial arrangement with this system.
A typical Igba Boy situation requires that the apprentice be stripped of access to financial power. They are not allowed to save or invest money toward their future business venture. They are not allowed to keep certain relationships that their master might consider distracting or capable of corrupting the apprentice. These apprentices, seeing as they are under the care of their masters and in most cases living with them, can be found performing tasks that move away from their primary assignment, thus providing unpaid labour that sometimes find them being kept under harsh conditions. Another deplorable part of this system is the near- absence of documentation. Everything is agreed upon by word of mouth on how long the apprenticeship would run (often longer than the agreed duration).
Under what conditions the apprenticeship would be kept and what the apprenticeship stands to gain at the end of their practice are also agreed to, by word of mouth. Now, that part is even more tricky and worth looking into when casting the Igbo apprenticeship system in such glorious light.
According to this article in The Sun, a considerable number of young Igbo boys are gradually shying away from this rather exploitative system where the master can pick offence with their apprentice and decide not to settle them. Sometimes, at the apprentice’s fifth or sixth year with them.
“An apprentice trader in Onitsha Main Market, Toochukwu Atama said the attitude of some big men or business owners made parents not to give out their boys again for apprenticeship. According to him, 60 per cent of the boys that did apprenticeship would not be settled by their bosses at the end of the seven to eight-year service agreement, noting that the bosses would cook up one allegation or the other and sack them.” a part of the article reads.
The Igbo apprenticeship system might be appealing in theory, a ready alternative to what Nigeria might have as a veritable business school, but it is a deeply flawed training model that can work if redesigned to fit the times we are in. As Political Activist Aisha Yesufu rightly noted in a tweet, the system needs to adopt more inclusion to begin with as it only involves people of the same tribe and are accessible mainly to men. The possibility of that might be hard, but the rewards would surely be immense.
The Igbo apprenticeship is an amazing system and the reason Igbos are great in business. Everything has it's advantage and disadvantage and that same system has also portrayed Igbos as clannish people who only employ their own people and never assimilate
Read, no fight https://t.co/K0Rn78BVPy
— Aisha Yesufu (@AishaYesufu) October 7, 2020
There also needs to be a lot more documentation involved in the agreement process and an overhaul of some of the crippling rules around this system that has thus far made it a quiet form of exploitation and unfair human treatment. So no, Igbo Apprenticeship is not all that.
Nelson C.J is a culture writer with works in The New York Times, Xtra Magazine, OkayAfrica, Black Youth Project, AfroPunk, and a few other spaces. You can find him saving dog pictures on Twitter.