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Imu Ahia – The system yielding business success for Igbos of Nigeria

The Igbos of Nigeria, who make around 18% of the population or 40 million people, are known for their success in business. In the capital of Lagos, they are estimated to be responsible for around three quarters of all business investment. They tend to have great presence in the market places of the country – for example, it has been estimated that 90% of the traders in Alaba Market, the largest electronics market in Nigeria, are Igbos.

What makes this even more remarkable is the level of destitute which the Igbos were forced into only 50 years ago. After the Civil of 1967-1970, when the Igbo nation of Biafra was crushed, an infamous “20 pounds policy” was implemented. This meant that only 20 pounds were given to virtually every Igbo family regardless of what they had in the bank before the war. Everything else was confiscated by the Nigerian Government.

Greeted by great poverty, halting of livelihood and scarcity of funds with no hope in sight, the Igbo people took the bull by the horn by taking their financial destinies into their hands. They developed “Imu Ahia”, that the American author Robert Neuwirth has described as the “largest business incubator in the world.”

Imu-Ahia (which means learning a trade) is a paramount factor in any discussion about the Igbo wealth creation and business success. It is an apprenticeship system where an established businessman (the nurturer), in a clan, town or street picks up a teenager or a young adult (the apprentice) from their home and gives them a raw and practical, cutthroat business education. The purpose is to take the boys off the streets and the perilous tendencies of an idle mind to give them a purpose worthy of emulation.

The apprentices learn how to do business for four to eight years, and at the end of their tenure, get cash infusion, support and blessing from the master to start their own business. There is no salary paid during the tenure but basic necessities such as shelter, meals, clothing and healthcare are provided for by the master (Oga).

The apprentice serves his master not only in relation to business but at home as well, by washing his cars, ironing his clothes etc. He cannot travel home without the knowledge of the master, even if the parents live in the same city. At the end of the apprenticeship, the master gives the apprentice a takeoff fund to rent or purchase a shop, goods, equipment and in some cases, accommodation for a given period of time. This does not mean that the two cease to collaborate; the master still assists him with goods procurement to reduce overhead importation cost, knowing fully well that the newly-settled apprentice has a weak purchasing muscle.

Once the apprentice graduates and is settled, he has a responsibility of doing for others back at home what his master has done for him by picking an apprentice. Meanwhile, his master must also pick another apprentice. It is thus a model that keeps engaging the young in a virtuous circle. The Igbo culture frowns at the young roaming the streets in idleness. The apprentice system of the Igbo ensures that if a child is unable to go to school, instead of staying back at home, he learns a trade.

In spite of the absence of clearly written laws to guide the relationship between the master and the apprentice, this system has succeeded over the years, which is based on a collage of factors.

The first reason is that the apprentice treads painstakingly in managing the affairs of his master and tries to prosper the master’s business because he knows that his destiny is tied to the destiny of his master. This fear engenders honesty during the years of apprenticeship as every established act of theft, diversion of funds and flamboyant use and wastage of business finances terminates the arrangement. On the other hand, the master is also careful to avoid a bad labelling from the community where he has picked the apprentice. To dismiss your servant on grounds that are not substantiated or failing to keep to the terms of apprenticeship after the agreed number of years of service can incur the wrath of the community back home. Masters who are notorious for not settling their apprentice hardly get an apprentice to work with them as the story is told of every master’s treatment of his apprentice. It is also believed that the insincere masters run the risk of having their business or fortune ruined by the apprentice’s personal deity, known as Chi. The most interesting and incredible part of this is that nothing is in written form, it’s all based on trust and credibility. The system cannot be legislated and forced from above – it is born out of the culture that the community voluntarily adheres to.

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