INTERVIEW: ‘The Igbo Apprenticeship Scheme Could Be Repositioned To Help Nigeria’


Uche Nworah

Chief Uche Nworah, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Anambra Broadcasting Service (ABS), Awka, Anambra State, is the convener, National Summit on Igbo Apprenticeship. In this interview with CHIJIOKE IREMEKA, he speaks on the Igbo apprenticeship scheme and how the scheme could be repositioned to help Nigeria as it battles various issues, including unemployment, banditry, and ethnic agitations among others.

Pondering on the Igbo apprenticeship, what is this scheme all about? Where and how did this culture come about?

The Igbo apprenticeship scheme is an entrepreneurial model where an entrepreneur takes an apprentice and teaches him or her the rudiments of a particular trade for an agreed period. On completion, the entrepreneur gives the apprentice seed capital to set up his own business.

Having said that, there is no recorded history of how long Ndigbo have been practicing the apprenticeship scheme. What is obvious is that it is majorly indigenous to Ndigbo and over time, has become part of their culture and tradition. It falls within the ‘self-help’ ideology, the ‘in-group’ philosophy, which found wider acceptance amongst Ndigbo after the Nigeria/Biafra civil war when Ndigbo were stripped of their savings and money in Nigerian banks and given only 20 pounds in exchange for whatever amount they may have in the bank, pre-civil war.

As the Igbo proverb goes, ‘Onye ajulu adiro aju onwe ya’ (if people reject and deny you, you should not deny and reject yourself) Ndigbo then set about rebuilding their businesses and communities, carrying friends, relatives and associates along. Individuals, age grade system, town unions, Iyom, Nze na Ozo and other traditional Igbo societies rallied round in this regard.

This determination to succeed with others also finds expression in the Igbo mantra of ‘Egbe bere ugo bere’- Live and let live, ‘Onye aghana nwanne ya’- leave no one behind along the journey of economic success or along the journey of life.

This meant that people that could already stand on their feet business-wise after the war had to recruit apprentices to serve them or to work with them in their businesses and trades, after which the apprentices (boi-bois) are settled (Idu uno) by their masters to start their own businesses. That way, the wheel of economic progress and development continued to grind in the South East and in other places where Ndigbo sojourn.

You recently conceived the National Summit on Igbo Apprenticeship under the theme: Repositioning The Igbo Apprenticeship Scheme for sustainable Economic Development. What does the event intend to achieve?

The objective of the organisers (Anambra Broadcasting Service in partnership with Awka Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture) is to bring to the fore at this time, the Igbo apprenticeship scheme. We believe that it could be repositioned to help Nigeria as it battles various issues including unemployment, banditry, and ethnic agitations among others.

There is a saying that the idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Adopting the Igbo apprenticeship scheme by both the federal, states and local councils will help provide economic opportunities for our young men and women.

We are also hoping to see how perhaps, as part of the repositioning of the scheme, the apprentices could get local higher institutions to validate their apprenticeship as is done in some parts of Europe. The apprentices could be awarded credit hours in areas like Marketing, Business Management, Customer Service, Leadership, Accounting etc for trade apprentices, or similar credit hours for those learning a skill such as mechanical, technical or other skills.

This is because on a daily basis in their masters’ shop, they are learning the practical aspects of these disciplines. We envisage a situation where perhaps, by the time they complete their apprenticeship; the apprentices will receive some certification, a diploma or so. This will greatly improve their self-esteem and encourage them further along their entrepreneurial journey, as against the situation where many of them go through life with the toga of being an illiterate. This is despite the life and practical lessons they have learnt as apprentices for several years.

We are imagining a situation where for example, there could be a national agency regulating such apprenticeship schemes. The agency will be responsible for a national database, and an apprenticeship exchange where aspiring ‘boi-bois’ will register their interest, and prospective ‘Ogas’ will register their willingness to absorb them. This will help in standardising the scheme. There will be guarantors etc.

An insurance scheme for ‘boi-bois’ could be introduced to enable them access start-up grants should their ‘Ogas’ fail to settle them when they complete their apprenticeship. The ‘Ogas’ will contribute towards such an insurance scheme and receive refund of the premium they have contributed if they fulfill the terms of the apprenticeship.

We have over time also noticed abuses in the Igbo apprenticeship scheme. There have been reported cases of apprentices overstaying the agreed period, or the ‘Oga’ refusing to settle the ‘boi-boi’ as agreed. These acts give the Igbo apprenticeship scheme a bad name. We are hoping that these and other associated issues will be discussed at the summit and solutions proffered.

What will be the focus of this event? Does it have to do with manpower development or wealth creation?

Both the keynote speaker, High Chief (Dr.) Obiora Okonkwo, Chairman of United Nigeria Airlines, and the high powered panel of discussants will X-ray the Igbo apprenticeship scheme, bring out the positives while also recommending areas that should be improved upon for the scheme to continue to be relevant in the 21st century.

We will also hear from successful individuals that have passed through the scheme and listen to their experiences etc. A more successful model of Igbo apprenticeship scheme will lead to human capital development and guarantee wealth creation.
Could you speak on the impact of the scheme on the young Anambrarian vis-a-vis the manpower development and wealth creation the system has attained over the years?

We may be having the summit in Anambra, but we are not only targeting Anambra youths. Our targets are the millions of Nigerian youths all over the country. The event will be streamed live and will also be uploaded on social media platforms for wider access and participation.

We hope to be able to encourage our youths to re-think and adopt this Igbo model of apprenticeship, learn a skill or trade under someone’s tutelage for an agreed period, and qualify to be given seed capital by the ‘Oga’ on completion. This is surely a better model than the present trend of our youths getting involved in all kinds of ‘get rich quick’ schemes to get rich.

Recently, ESUT Business School, Enugu, indicated interest to research on the Igbo apprenticeship scheme. What has necessitated discussions on this scheme in the recent times?

It’s not only ESUT Business School, some other business schools in the world, including Harvard, have also in the past done one study or the other on Igbo apprenticeship. People are coming to the realisation that the time has come for us to look inwards and re-discover economic and entrepreneurship promotion models such as the Igbo apprenticeship scheme that have continued to make the Igbo economy strong, and Igbo people stronger with little or no government support.

It is a fascinating model of enterprise development where an entrepreneur agrees to take under his or her tutelage potential competitors. He or she at the end of the apprenticeship also goes ahead to fund the start-up who almost immediately begins to compete with him or her within the same jurisdiction of business.

Such healthy competition should be studied and promoted. We want to re-start a national debate and discussions around it with a view to repositioning the scheme and making it better and stronger.

How has the Igbo apprenticeship system helped in the development of South East?

The scheme has not only helped in improving the economic fortunes of Anambra state, but those of several other states and countries where Ndigbo sojourn. Take Lagos State for example, if you go to Idumota, ASPANDA, Ladipo, Trade Fair, Orile and such other large markets, you will see Ndigbo working hard in their various shops; you will also see the ‘Ogas’ and their ‘Boi-Bois’- apprentices.

Those ‘boi-bois’ today are the ‘Ogas’ of tomorrow. By the time they complete their apprenticeship, they will be ‘settled’ by their ‘Ogas’ to start their own businesses. The cycle continues because when they start their own business, they will in-turn take under their wings another set of ‘boi-bois.’

They will build factories, rent or buy lands and properties, invest in the towns and states where they trade, and also at home as Ndigbo believe in the ‘Aku luo uno’ philosophy – taking part of their wealth home. That’s how Ndigbo collectively contribute to the socio-economic development or industrialisation of the towns, states and countries where they reside.

We are a sojourning race. Unlike what some people say, to create hatred against Ndigbo, we bring economic and other values wherever we go.

How would this scheme leapfrog the economy of South East to attract development in the region?

The Igbo apprenticeship scheme has helped in reducing unemployment in the region as it informally provides employment to thousands of youth in the region.

We believe that if we can make the government and other relevant stakeholders, including the higher institutions, development partners etc, to take more interest in the scheme with a view to adopting it and promoting it further, more successful entrepreneurs will be created and their economic activities will fast-track development not only in the region but also in the country.

Seeing the Igbo apprenticeship scheme as the soul of their businesses, how does it make business concerns owned by Igbo people more sustainable?

Sustainability is another discussion altogether and is not the focus of the summit. However, we believe that at the summit, some insights will be shared on that because we are beginning to see that Igbo businesses don’t usually continue after the founders pass on.

We can name many businesses, which were giants in the 70s, 80s and 90s owned by Igbo men of that era. Most of those businesses are no more. Several reasons have been advanced for that. However, we will focus mainly on Igbo apprenticeship at the summit.