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Igba-boi: Secret of Igbo Commercialism

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The Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria is known for success in business and entrepreneurship. Their enterprising skills made them migrate in droves away from their cultural enclave in South-Eastern Nigeria, to other parts of Nigeria and beyond, where they have created and established different lines of business enterprises. In Lagos, which is the Nigerian economic capital, Igbo businesses account for the 74% of all investments according to Maliga (2013).Also, down in the South-Eastern Nigeria which is the Igbo home land and some part of Niger Delta region where Igbo people inhabit, the story remains an overwhelming entrepreneurial advancement and economic prominence.

In recent times, the entrepreneurial performance of the Igbo people of Nigeria has become outstanding. This is as most increasing numbers of Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs), as well as Large Business Enterprises (LBEs) which underscores the growth of the Nigerian economy are owned and managed by the Igbo people. More still, this gross commercial performance of the Igbos even prevails amidst harsh increasing circumstances. The Igbos understand entrepreneurship as a potent economic force, and a core element in the development efforts of an individual and the nation at large. This is why despite the dynamic multiplying socio-political and economic challenges in the modern world, the Igbos exhibit overwhelming entrepreneurial strides.

The Igbo entrepreneurial worldview which is the pervasive unified socio-economic picture of their cosmos is the main catalyst behind their socio-economic rhythms in the universe.

Significant part of this worldview therefore is the Igbo culture of praise and recognition for well deserved wealth. This tradition of encomium is discernible even in Igbo religious beliefs, rites, rituals, festivals, folklores and myths. In fact, the Igbos view wealth as a means of gaining social prestige and acquiring social befitting rank. This stems from Igbo cosmological view of human existence encapsulated in their proverb nwata kwochaa aka, osoro okenye rie nri (A child that washes his hands dines with the Elders). Based on this worldview, the traditional Igbo people flaunt their expanse lands, large farms and abundant harvests, their large compounds marked by numerous houses and peopled by wives, offspring and dependants which are the fruits of their entrepreneurial efforts. This accords them recognition and titles from the society such as Ozo, Ichie, Ochiliozuo, Osirioha, Ogbuehi, to mention but a few. It then means that one is judged worthy of attaining the social rank in Igbo context based on his large wealth and philanthropic deeds felt by the community. Most importantly, this tradition serves as an incentive towards purposeful entrepreneurship in the Igbo society. Hence for the Igbos, entrepreneurial success is not just a choice but a must.

The Igbos view entrepreneurship as self employment of any sort, which bothers on continuously identifying, evaluating and taking advantage of business opportunities and initiating sustainable action to ensure success. It is as well understood as a search for profit based on innovation, creativity and efficient utilization of resources in a consistent Igbo cultural pattern, which is filled with vision and enthusiasm and is result driven. Therefore, entrepreneurship for the Igbo people incorporates every profit and goal oriented strategies which they describe as Ibido ahia or oru (starting an enterprise), Izu ahia (business transactions), Imu ahia (learning a trade), Imu oru (learning a craft or vocation), and Igba oso ahia (indulging in the trick of marketing another’s goods with his consent at a price that raises capital).

Of particular interest in the entrepreneurial foundation of the Igbos is the apprenticeship system known as Igba-boi. The Igbos have inter alia used and continued to use this unique approach, which entails working under a particular mentor and learning the tricks of the mentor’s innovation for a number of years, to engage in entrepreneurial activities. Within this approach, the parents of a potential apprentice (mostly males) often bargains and negotiates with a successful entrepreneur on the possibility of handing over their child to him (the successful entrepreneur). This is done with the hope that the child would stay under him and acquire the basic skills of entrepreneurship.

At this juncture, it is important to differentiate this framework from other Igbo schemes such as Imu-ahia (to learn a trade) or Imu-oru (to learn a craft), which are also common within the Igbo communities. Unlike Igba-boi where mentees arrange a contract to have a complete training circle for free, imu-oru or imu-ahia is not done for free. In this, the apprentice is expected to pay a ransom to their master to acquire the skills. The contract is for a short period, often two years or less. This is significantly different from Igba-boi, which often lasts for many years.

It is imperative to note that the term ‘Igba-boi’ for the Igbos does not mean “to serve another” in the literal sense of the word, whereby the only purpose is total servitude to the master. The Igbo Igba-boi system is a process whereby someone is being trained in the act of entrepreneurship. This venture can be a trade, an enterprise or a vocation. In this entrepreneurial apprenticeship system, the apprentice (boi) is expected to serve the mentor (oga/madam) unreservedly as he/she learns the trade, vocation or craft. This service is indeed grounded in the Igbo cosmological understanding of Onye fee Eze, Eze eruo ya aka (he who serves the King shall be King thereafter). At the end of this traditional business school and service which at times stretches up to seven years, the mentor performs the “settlement”. This comprises of aiding the apprentice financially and otherwise in starting his/her own business or vocation based on the earlier agreement with the apprentice’s family. Once this is done, the apprentice (boi) is now on his own, free from the mentor.

A brief comparison of the South-East’s apprenticeship system with the apprenticeship system in the South-West (Yoruba) region reveals an interesting divergence. In the later, the apprentice, upon completion of their apprenticeship pays the master a ‘freedom fee’, buys drinks and throws a party according to his/her financial abilities before they can graduate and get on with their trade officially. The period of apprenticeship is usually 2 – 3 years on the average. The apprentice is usually presented with a certificate. The apprentice does not necessarily live under the care of his/her boss and is responsible for his/her own feeding in most cases.

The Igbo apprenticeship system is a departure from the above. Apprentices join an established business person, leave their parents/family to live under the care and supervision of the master. The apprentice is often closely related to the master. He/she does not travel home during festivities to their family without the consent of the master even if the master and family are in the same city. Igbo apprentices also do other domestic chores in the house like car washing, ironing and cleaning whenever they are not in the shop. They are appraised based on not just work ethic while learning and growing the master’s businesses but also on their performance in non-business related areas like respect for the master’s spouse/family etc. At the end of the apprenticeship, they are compensated with a take-off fund which they use for shop rent, goods, equipment (if needed) and in some cases, accommodation for a given period of time.

This is the system that the Igbos use to create employment. For long, apprenticeship has been the backbone of Igbo business culture. Young men and women serve someone to gain knowledge of a particular business and then setup theirs with help from the master. Some of these apprentices are people who have capital to start a business but lack the business knowledge. Others have the knowledge but lack the capital while some are just unemployed. In all instances, the solution is to serve someone who is into the same line of business and is able to set them up on completion of the apprenticeship.

Apprenticeship among the Igbos helps both the master and servant. The master gets loyal extra hands while the apprentice learn the business and get settled after their service year(s).

The master helps them establish their own business with the money he pays them as settlement. Some masters even connect their apprentices with international contacts to help them be firmly established enough to operate independently. This system ensures there are more people doing a particular line of businesses and knowledge is passed on. It reduces the rate of business failure since young/new entrepreneurs get the requisite knowledge before setting up the business.

The Igba-boi apprenticeship system of the Igbos has continued to progress because of its advantages. It encourages business expansion, networking and diversification, helps the entrepreneurs to have an edge over other competitors and is highly profit-driven.

Additionally, the apprentice (boi) gains adequate exposure and insight into the business, knows the customers, producers, importers, middlemen, regardless of their locations, and acquires adequate entrepreneur-customers relations and business skills necessary for performance.

Do you not wonder why there is no Nigerian market that thrives without Igbo traders and their apprentices trying to break new grounds while enriching themselves? It is simply the Igbo apprentice system at work. Through the apprenticeship system known as Igba-boi, people from this ethnic group have dominated and continued to excel above their contemporaries from other ethnic groups in the country and beyond. The Igba-boi apprenticeship system is the simple secret of Igbo commercialism.

Ezinwanne Onwuka, Cross River State


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