The Major Defect in Igbo Apprenticeship System!

The Major Defect in Igbo Apprenticeship System!

As we examine a new application nexus of the Igbo Apprenticeship system, postulated by Dr. Olumide Odeyemi, I note one area which makes the system defective in modern capitalism. Largely, the present model of the system is ineffective and could be updated to be relevant in the new age of commerce and industry. Keep reading!

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!

So, you have a scenario where a man (trading in a city) goes to his village, picks 3 boys who might have lost their fathers, and decides to ensure they have meaningful lives despite the tragedies that befell them. Those boys serve him for some years, and one afternoon, he invites his kinsmen, friends, business partners and everyone as he “settles” them.

This settlement is simply dividing his market share among these boys. In other words, assume he holds 3% in that specific market, by the time he is done, he might be holding only 2%, releasing 1% to the boys. For him, the growth of his company is not what matters – it is that “his boys” do well. Then, he does not stop there, he begins to send the boys opportunities, making sure they are able to thrive independently. No Western textbook teaches that!

Yes, under Western education, we focus on the accumulation of market share. That is what business schools teach us – and what business, in the Western world, is all about. Come up with ideas and win more market shares. But the Igbo Apprenticeship System is not designed to maximize market share. Rather, it is structured to ensure everyone is just fine. This is the reason you enter into a community, everyone is doing well but no one is an iroko tree. 

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.

Largely, the more you look into the system with Adam Smith economics, the more it looks extremely troubling. But if you look at it with “Igbo Umunneoma” economics, you will marvel what men and women have invented to avoid extreme poverty and inequalities in communities. [Umunneoma means good brethren]

As Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and other U.S. Presidential aspirants speak out over inequalities as digital conglomerates rake all the values while others struggle, the Igbo Apprenticeship System is the most advanced system that is engineered to reduce mass-scaled inequality. But do not expect Amazon, Google, and Facebook to give out market share to competitors, and even fund them.

Yet, from America, they need to understand that some people are already practicing what they hope to happen. If they follow that redesign, the U.S. will become a nation of mass-micro-entities with limited conglomerates. That means, no company will have massive scale to deal with big challenges at the upstream level since accumulated capabilities will be largely downstream.

I will be speaking this October in Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, and I will be looking at a new leadership nexus by examining present market mechanics, human society and culture. A Harvard professor will score the Igbo Apprenticeship System poorly because its market system works against the typical drivers in fixing market frictions: launch, scale, and dominate. 

But the 200 CEOs who recently signed to upgrade corporate missions – “purpose of a corporation”- is coming back to a purpose Africans have been practicing for centuries – with solid results of better wellbeing in communities. Yes, humane leadership that seeks for the rise of all over just a few is African, even though everyone is running for the western system because they have convinced us that our system is defective!

Sure, we can improve this system to have it both ways by making sub-members of an apprenticeship hub to be in a cooperative that operates as a conglomerate. This is typical in Europe in entities like Frieslandcampina (makers of Peak Milk) which is owned by a cooperative of dairy farmers, yet structured to grow as a conglomerate. The daily farmers have a clear feeder system for their produce while the corporation works to maximize market share and profit globally.


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18 thoughts on “The Major Defect in Igbo Apprenticeship System!

  1. Building conglomerate, causes centralization and creates too big to fail entities that’s are capable of commiting some of the ills we’re seeing with Facebook, Google, Dutch Bank and the whole lot of them.
    You end up creating a fragile systems driven by few large cooperations aggregating all the wealth hence power; through lobbying activities.

    The Igbo apprenticeship system, directly solves these, creating a more Antifragile business landscape. Nobody gets all the wealth. The society in general is wealthy not the individual.

    1. “The society in general is wealthy not the individual.” You are correct. The challenge is that the society will not have the resources to attack big issues which only conglomerates can do. There are challenges Amazon and Google are fixing in America because of scale. You need scale if you want to play at the upstream. But if buying and selling, sure, our apprenticeship works

  2. There are many ways to look at it, which obviously should give rise to various schools of thought. Human dynamics continues to evolve, but the larger world seems stuck in viewing economics from the old categories of capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. These models have become too limited and highly defective, so it would be out of place to define a nation or region as practising one or two systems; our modern day sophistications and complexities simply demand that we modify and expand these systems in tens and hundreds.

    We need to also understand that the famed Igbo Apprentice system is largely anchored on commerce (buying and selling), a highly commoditized activity, with little differentiation or innovation.

    How do you replicate such when filing of patents are required, especially when huge capital investment is needed for R & D, before a product or service is seen or felt? That’s where categorisation and sub-categorisation of economic practices and frameworks come handy.

    We distort reality when there is too much talk about ‘inequality’, the ‘gap between the rich and poor’, and the biggest confusion of them all: shared prosperity!

    My thought on this is too lengthy for LinkedIn anyway. We haven’t learnt enough on humans.

    1. “We need to also understand that the famed Igbo Apprentice system is largely anchored on commerce (buying and selling), a highly commoditized activity, with little differentiation or innovation.” That is the summary. We cannot take it to the upstream level.

  3. Dear Prof, there is an important missing link in your analogy. This is the JV model adopted for a period of 12 to 24 months between the Oga and Nwa boy in a new shop where the nwa boy has more liberty and expected to build his customer base, capital and business process.

    This new venture is now partitioned into 2 and the master still keeps one.

    I will see it more as the master co investing with nwa boy who is the technical party and later on graduates to become full owner.

    Given the little or no work done by the master on the JV sparing cash injection…I wont totally agree with the submission that the process is defective.

    You can check this out with some onitsha or Ariaria traders to confirm sir.

    Thanks for reading my contribution.

    1. “Given the little or no work done by the master on the JV sparing cash injection”

      Note that this is not just “investing”, the master diverts some customers to this new competitor. Data shows that this is one reason the Igbos have not built big conglomerates. We need to fix it – and that is the contribution the modern generation can add to it.

      1. Good lines Sir… Should we be more concerned about the “few growing richer” or “many” becoming comfortable to cater for basic necessity of life?..May be if Adam Smith had visited Nigeria, he might have come up with a communal economic school of thoughts because an average Alaba man can comfortably feed his family and neighbours. In my own thoughts, I strongly stand with the Igbo Apprenticeship scheme because the model seems to be a working one for decades. A good example is Emeka, whom I knew back then at Iwo Road (Onilu area) in Ibadan while he was still a young man under training with his Master that sells tiles and other building materials. Fate brought us to see again last year after 15 years at the convocation ground in Unilag when a thick man approached me that you look so familiar. To cut the story short, it happened to be Emeka of those days who after finishing his training, was set up by his Master, now has 2 shops in Ibadan, 2 in Lagos and 3 at Onitsha.. In his voice he said”nah my first pikin dey do hin convocation today, that’s why I am here”…In my deepest mind, I said”waohhh, this is aawesome”…In my discussion with Mr Emeka, he said currently he has about 16 apprentice guys under him.. So this invariably means that in the next few years, about 16 guys would also have financial freedom. I think after setting them up, a good percentage of them, turn out to be quite better in the business and even richer than their Masters. The systems is still working and I feel business and academic pedagogues needs to do more research on the origin, working principles and it’s effects on the society at large.

  4. However, you can’t take manufactuting away from business. ….. And the summary of business is more than buying and selling alone. The Igbo type is majorly focused on buying and selling, and the manufacturers engineering the buyers and sellers, needs the conglomerate. The buyers and sellers (Igbos – according to your analogy), need not to have the conglomerate………

  5. Western MBA expose their students to various business cases that support both blue and red sea strategies. One case that I believe could be comparable to the “Igbo Apprenticeship System” is J.C. Penny’s original strategy where he built chain of stores using one third partnership with his employees. ”
    Becoming a partner with Johnson and Callahan transformed Penney’s life, and he dreamed of building a chain of stores using one-third partnerships. When his two mentors sold Penney their interests in three Wyoming stores in 1907, he started expanding. With new partners, who were his former sales clerks, Penney opened Golden Rule Stores in Utah and Idaho in 1908.
    In 1917, when there were 175 stores, 123 shareholders, and sales of $14 million, Penney became chairman of the board. Earl Corder Sams, who was hired by Penney in 1906, became company president and was responsible for daily operations. Although 1917 has been cited as the date Penney retired from the company, it actually was the year that Penney began the important work of planning for the company’s future growth and continued success.”

  6. I think the flaw of the system rather has more to with the type of business engaged in, which is trade which can easily be disintermediated, as opposed to moving up the value chain. If said master were to move up the value chain to manufacturing and r and d, while keeping the nwa boys as downline/distributors, maybe we might have seen a difference. Another issue that plagues it is one that affects family businesses all over, lack of structure, not using talented outsiders and sentiments in employement, where a master might keep an erring boy because he doesnt want villagers to say he stiffed the boy because its almost time for him to settle him, as against just firing the boy if he errs if there were no attachments.

  7. Prof,
    Please should an engineering company pay enginnering students on (IT) industrial training who will become their competitors tomorrow?. The apprentice also helps to expand the business and domestic jobs. The major problem affecting the system these days is the apprentice is expected to send money to the family irrespective of how the money comes and at the end the tenure, the master is expected to raise money and set up business for the apprentice albeit the greedy masters who see the apprentice as a competitor or slave. The Igbo Apprentice system goes beyond trading and indegent families, think of teachers and headmasters who helped many children to be educated, the tradesmen, tailors. The system can still lead to business conglomerates if the existing gap of funding, research and management is filled by those who can provide it as a service.

  8. In addition to the diverse perspectives shared already, the impression that the apprenticeship system does not encourage emergence of conglomerates, may not be completely true any longer. At present, there are emerging (albeit at snail speed) Igbo manufacturing conglomerates (call them micro conglomerates). Most of their CEOs are products of Igbo apprenticeship system. Second, Igbo entrepreneurs who graduated from the Igbo Apprenticeship Business School are integrating with Asians lately to build congratulates, again, the sped may be slow. Just a matter of business evolution! Also, the very harsh business environment in Nigeria contributes to products of Igbo apprenticeship preferring to outsource manufacturing operations to foreign firms, while they import the finish product. Most certainly, improved business environment will encourage emergence of micro manufacturers that over time will become big conglomerates. Lastly, we need to factor in the metaphysical worldview of the Igbos that favors individualism and a type of capitalism mixed with communalism (not communism) as opposed to the American capitalism that favors individual wealth accumulation, which could explain the centralized, conglomerate model. The Igbos believe that a single tree no matter the size cannot make a forest. But, for the purpose of building scale, it is more of mindset rather than the system.

    1. “Lastly, we need to factor in the metaphysical worldview of the Igbos that favors individualism and a type of capitalism mixed with communalism (not communism) as opposed to the American capitalism that favors individual wealth accumulation, which could explain the centralized, conglomerate model.” That is a wonderful line there. Communalism, not communism is brilliant.

  9. Okechukwu Onuchukwu · Edit

    All the comments I have read here are truly enlightening. I was having a discussion with a friend about the ”Igbo apprenticeship system” and how it can be scaled to birth Large and profitable companies. If only some kind of share allocation in Parent companies to the ‘nwa boy’ , the outcome would be impressive. But due to the largely informal process and modus operandi of such business, the masters just basically dilute their market shares to accommodate the apprentice. The “I own the company” mentality can be upgraded to a partnership, which can scale to become a behemoth group of companies with massive capabilities.

  10. The Igbo Apprenticeship System remains one of the most unique home-grown ways of fighting inequalities, poverty reduction, youth empowerment and incubation of entrepreneurs for the continent. It’s adoption, mass-scalling and transition from the informal to the formal sector is the missing link. Arguably, if this model is further distilled and refined, this could provide a lasting solution to the shortage of entrepreneurs or wealth creators in Africa.

    Therefore, to make progress, we need the mass-scalling of entrepreneurs or wealth creators who would serve as catalyst of change, drivers of growth and promoters of innovation. Once this is achieved, the forces of the market will naturally facilitate the evolution of conglomerates as a natural consequence or the inevitable end.

  11. Ibeto, Innocent, ABC Orjiako with Seplat, Arthur Eze, I mean I can go on forever. The idea that Igbos don’t have conglomerates is LAUGHABLE. Sometimes I feel like we let other ethic groups get into our heads and it’s sad.

    The Igbo Apprenticeship System is genius and has produced many DOLLAR BILLIONAIRE AND MILLIONAIRES. I just deeply disagree with this viewpoint


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