The Igbo Apprenticeship System, Dangote Group, Innoson Motors and Ubuntu

The Igbo Apprenticeship System, Dangote Group, Innoson Motors and Ubuntu

Great feedback on the Ubuntu and Igbo Apprenticeship System piece. Many have written comparing Dangote Group and Innoson Vehicle Motors (IVM). Some accurately noted that Dangote is now a big conglomerate while IVM is not. And Innoson Chukwuma, IVM Founder, may be controlling a huge part of that business while Dangote might have diluted to scale via outside funding.

The soul of the Igbo Apprenticeship System could be likened to the U.S. Federal Reserve which largely works to keep the U.S. dollars stable (by reducing inflation) and maximize employment through interest rates. So, the Reserve has defined main focus areas even though it can use its systems to do other things. Consequently, the U.S. Congress uses those two main factors to ascertain the effectiveness of the Reserve policy. For the Igbo Apprenticeship System, the main focus is to prevent poverty by mass-scaling opportunities for everyone, and not building conglomerates!

As someone who is close to these Igbo legends, I do note that what drives them is different. Yes, they do dilute their business controls by giving out market share, not via equity as in the typical European model. I have noted that the system has major defects; many will argue differently! With the Obi of Awka last year, I discussed the Umunneoma Economics in Nnamdi Azikiwe University.

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When a child is born, he belongs to the community. That is why Igbos name their kids “Nwaoha” [the child of the community]. The parents are agents to bring children into the world; the communities have duties to ensure the children thrive.

So, under Igbo Apprenticeship System, you see men who could have built massive assets and empires dividing their acquired market shares for over four decades, happily. That is why you will not see any big conglomerate in Aba, Onisha etc because the Igbo Apprenticeship System is not designed to have one iroko but many trees in the forest!

From the continental and global levels, Igbo Apprenticeship System is defective.But from the community level, it is perfect. There is no beggar in my village in Ovim (Abia State) because there is always help. But those helps come by relinquishing market shares by market leaders even as they fund their future competitors.

The fact is this: people like IVM measure impacts differently. Nnewi has the highest per capita income in Nigeria according to many studies. Ohafia men will believe that it is better to have 10 men with $10k than two with $50k each. Across the Igbo Nation, and drawing from post-war experiences, strengthening communities was more important than personal empires. Many Igbo communities started community leagues and development associations to build schools, clinics, and roads. The Ovim Community League which manages my village was started in the 1970s to support the community since no one expected help from the Nigerian government. Despite their saving, Nigeria froze their bank accounts, and practically, all Igbos had to begin from near-ground zero.

To make progress, they called that Umunneoma spirit, asking those who made small efforts to come and pick their brethren. Men made business decisions designed not to make just money but to employ people. And community levies mushroomed as they wanted to make sure that even though they were venturing out of villages, those back home must still have schools and clinics. Most primary and secondary schools built post-war in Igbo Nation were built by community efforts, not government.

The Secondary Technical School Ovim which I attended was built in the mid-1970s. By 1981, it had woodwork, automotive, etc labs. Today, the state university uses it for computer labs as it has advanced computer labs. All the projects funded via Ovim Community League. The promising businessmen made enormous financial sacrifices to support those projects.

The Igbos came out of the Biafra war with assets (outside South East) frozen by the federal government; call it ground zero. Many Igbo communities started community leagues to build schools, clinics, etc. Elders pushed men to share opportunities to help brethren. The war shaped the tribe; young women trekked days, hiding from bombs to get salts, as men fought war. Mothers named their kids “Nwaoha”[child of the community], with confidence that the village would rise if orphaned.

The key is that companies like Dangote Group and IVM have different incentives because the founders see things differently. Most will not tell you that. Between building a dominant conglomerate, most of the Igbo players  will prefer to build a stable community with many players. This cuts across trade and industries.They did not live through the war because of wealth, but through shared efforts. Each person is nothing but through communal support, they are rising. They lost 100% of all landed properties outside Eastern Nigeria, but today, through shared efforts, they are one of the largest investors in landed properties in Nigeria. Yes, while there is no single dominant landowner, in their midst, the cohort is thriving – and when they see opportunities, they pass to their brethren.

The largest producer of car spare parts many years ago in Ghana was Ifeanyi Ubah (now a Senator). He left that business to his brethren to build hydro power plants in Congo which remain one of his biggest investments. Ifeanyi then used his money to build a community in Congo. He gave away good businesses and opportunities to his brethren. Then, he left to start Capital Oil, one of the largest indigenous oil depots in Nigeria.

I was with Mr Ubah in his office a few years ago when a man who took him to Ghana visited him in Abuja. He had dropped out of secondary school in his second year or so. Ubah is now multiples richer. But the reverence was unbelievable: “Prof, this is my Oga. He took me to Ghana”, the now-Senator said. Later that evening, the man came to me: “I am proud of my boys, Ifeanyi makes me happy”. Those are things that bring happiness to them, not market share or dividend.

Nigerian Igbos Run the Largest Business Incubation System in the world – TED Video


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16 thoughts on “The Igbo Apprenticeship System, Dangote Group, Innoson Motors and Ubuntu

  1. There are many facets to this, and once we reduce it to this vs that argument, valuable insights and lessons could be lost.

    If Dangote Group has 15k well paid employees, it means that it is building 15k households, it doesn’t require apprenticeship system alone to build people and communities. Looking at the man Aliko Dangote would be misleading, the focus should be on how many households that live well enough as a result of jobs created by him. It is greed that makes people focus on someone’s personal wealth, rather than the overall impacts his exploits created.

    If you look at Apple, Microsoft or Google, each has tens of thousands of employees, and there are thriving companies founded by alumni of each of these corporations; without necessarily undergoing any known apprenticeship, rather they gained valuable personal and business skills while working there.

    Again, there are those who are at their best as employees, making those people to become self-employed through apprenticeship system doesn’t always end well; examples abound in Igbo land of boys who spent several years, got settled, but couldn’t gain traction in their own business, they collapsed.

    I think both corporations and apprenticeship can coexist, I prefer that.

    1. At nationalistic and global levels, corporations give you such impacts. Yes, Facebook has about 40k employees – and those are great conduits to support many people and families. But if you are looking for brethren who can support you to build schools, clinics, roads, etc at LOCAL level in your community, that model fails. There is self-preservation in what is done in the Igbo Nation, just like jews. You can argue the thinking is this: I need to help my brethren to ensure our heritage does not collapse, since it is only by strengthening them can we over the experiences of the Biafran war. On that, empowering their communities of 10k becomes more important than employing 100k globally. Why build a house of $2 million in a village when such can give you a lot in the city? As I said, the incentives are different.

      1. “At nationalistic and global levels, corporations give you such impacts. Yes, Facebook has about 40k employees – and those are great conduits to support many people and families. But if you are looking for brethren who can support you to build schools, clinics, roads, etc at LOCAL level in your community, that model fails. There is self-preservation in what is done in the Igbo Nation, just like jews.”

        That is very correct. Very correct!!

    2. Francis,
      In some cases corporations and apprenticeship does exist like in tech companies where employees can develop innovations with resources from the corporation and become a partner or earns commission from such (in)entrapreneurial adventure. But unlike the Dangote’s, Apple and Google provides enabling environments for apprenticeship with incentive to encourage ideas that also helps the corporation. We may consider this as an extension or modern apprenticeship system but not like the Igbo system. In Igbo system, you train someone to become your competitor but not in this case. Here you buy or do strategic partnership.

    3. Your points are valid but think of what a wrongly calculated business decision by Dangote will do to the 15k households.

      I strongly agree with the philosophy of decentralization in this case.

  2. I really enjoyed this article. I grew up with a lot of igbo families around me. I realised very quickly that each Igbo household had at least 3 young men living with the nuclear family. These young men will go to the shops in the morning and from time to time a batch will leave the house and a new group of boys will replace them continuing that cycle As a little girl, I wondered why they all squeezed themselves in this two bedroom flat not paying much mind to the Business model even though my own parents explained it to me multiple times. I gave no much thought to this phenomenom until I watched the TEDx speech on the apprenticeship model of the Igbos a few years back and my little girl experience all came gushing back. I understood deeply what was being done. Each one, lift one. My own boss, an Igbo man has built the largest indegenous Airline employing thousanes. At the core of his vision is the mandate to provide massive job opportunities to hundreds of Nigerians. I am a beneficiary of that vision. I made great career progress as I built the HR Department from scratch at Air Peace. I think that both models serves the purpose of supporting families. Due to the experience of the Igbos during biafra, you can easily understand and relate to their motive of empowering their communities. Our history and background largely shapes us.

  3. Great read. I am moreso impressed with Ifeanyi Ubah’s beginnings. It gladens my heart.

    There is clearly no need for comparisons. However, the key thing here what works best for each community based on experience.

    I believe that experiences and history shape a people better. The Igbo apprenticeship system is designed to lift each other up. Take a look at the Alaba Electronics retail market probably the largest in Africa, worth doing a yearly turnover of about $20b.
    The system is likened to the VC funding of the West.

    I believe every people, community should figure out what works best for them and scale it.

    Onye Ahala Nwanne Ya = Ubuntu.

    Thank you Prof. Ndubuisi you are a blessing.

  4. Barr Victor onuoha · Edit

    Thank you Prof for this beautiful piece on the igbo business venture. It is all about the spirit of “Igwebuike “. It is the spirit that is keeping the igbo nation in spite of the marginalization at the center. I call on other well meaning igbo entrepreneurs to come home and invest as Innoson did.
    Prof am still expecting you to bring to fruition your desire to establish a private university in Ovim.

  5. Egbe belu, ugo belu… This article is eye opening, especially for me, an Igbo boy with a Yoruba ascent.

    I have seen a lot of folks from the East bequeath their business to relatives and struggle to fathom the sense in it.

    Prof just gave a cultural orientation to me.


  6. Very true professor, the Jews have used this system successfully.

    Few years ago my pastor preached on the Jewish model, and it was eventually adopted, we are beginning to see the upside.

  7. Ahem!

    Did anyone remember the little child, Ugwu, in Chimamanda’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun — how he grew up as a boyi-boyi for university professors, and in the end was on his way to become a writer? That little boy, who came from a poor family, spent his early life serving food and drink to big honcho-es, was on his way to becoming a honcho himself. I recommend him as a model.


  8. Ubuntu should probably be added to the Igbo vocabulary.
    I worked in Alaba international market for 15 months and I was amazed by how the igbo traders trade-off their business returns to promote a fellow brother.
    Interesting article and thank you Prof.

  9. Ibos are great indeed. I heard we are originally Jews.
    All people r wonderful. Different cultures shape us.. At the end of the day as long as we are promoting lives, it’s all yummy yummy n good.


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