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The Igbo apprenticeship system: A model for equitable wealth creation in Africa?

Africa needs a more equitable and sustainable economic model built on African traditional, humanistic philosophies
Ezeh (in black), a former houseboy is now a millionaire

The World Bank recently disclosed that about four million Nigerians were pushed into the poverty trap in the first six months of 2023. Meanwhile, about 18 million new poor emerged in Africa in 2022 with the continent having more than half of the population of the world’s poor and a pervasive inequality across its sub-regions. Clearly, it is imperative that Africa finds an Afrocentric solution to public wealth creation and curbs social inequality if it must achieve its vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens ”.  The age-long traditional “Igbo Apprenticeship System”, which has been successful in reducing poverty and social inequality among the Igbo tribe in the southeastern region of Nigeria, can be adapted and deployed as a model for public wealth creation and reducing poverty across Africa.

According to Professor Ndubuisi Ekekwe, the Igbo apprenticeship system is “a communal enterprising framework where successful businesses develop others, and over time provide capital and give away their customers to the new businesses. The implication is that few businesses grow to become very dominant since they keep relinquishing market share, and in doing so, they accomplish one thing: a largely equal community where everyone has opportunities, no matter how small”.

This model of economic growth and empowerment is built on the Ubuntu philosophy of humanity towards others where no one is left behind. Within this model, parents of potential apprentices (who are mostly from poor households and cannot afford the cost of giving education to their child) negotiate and reach an agreement with a successful business owner to hand over their child for business mentorship. The child stays under the mentor for a pre-agreed period to acquire basic skills of entrepreneurship after which, upon graduation, the mentor offers the mentee capital to start up his own business and gives up a certain percentage of his customer base to his mentee.

The mentor is happy to see his mentees succeed even though they become his competitors in the available market. His sense of fulfilment and respect from his community is in the number of mentees with successful businesses that he has produced. The mentees go on to bring other young apprentices under their mentorship, train them, and start business ventures for them and the circle continues.

The Igbo apprenticeship system is regarded as the largest business incubator in the world as thousands of business ventures are established each year through this system. It is no surprise that Abia, Anambra and Imo States of southeastern Nigeria where this apprenticeship system is practiced are among the states with the lowest poverty and income inequality rates in Nigeria.

As Africa struggles to curb the menace of extreme poverty and pervasive social inequality on the continent, there is a need to review the current model of capitalism as practiced in Africa. It is built on Western ideologies, which some of its critics believe has contributed to income inequality, environmental degradation, and the exploitation of workers in Africa.

For instance, South Africa despite its economic growth and status as one of the biggest economies in Africa, is reported by the World Bank to be the most unequal country in the world where 10 percent of the population owns more than 80 percent of the country’s wealth. Nigeria with a similar situation has produced some of the richest business men in Africa but has remained the poverty capital of the world for many years, especially its northern region.

Obviously, the continent needs a more equitable and sustainable economic model built on African traditional, humanistic philosophies to ensure economic growth and the broad distribution of the benefits of such model among the people. It is in Africa’s strategic interest to adopt new economic models where economic equilibrium is easily and efficiently attained and inequality is severely mitigated. The Igbo apprenticeship system has proven to be one such model over time.

On the other hand, Africa’s billionaire business men and women and their businesses should understudy the Igbo apprenticeship system and adapt the model in their programmes and interventions with the goal of reproducing many other successful businesses like theirs on the continent.

In Sum, creating sustainable public wealth and prosperity in Africa where no one is left behind should be the collective goal of all Africans. We must put off the cloak of greed that is associated with capitalism and build an Africa where everyone has an equal opportunity and a fair chance to thrive and rise above poverty; that is the African spirit of “I am what I am because of who we all are” – Ubuntu.



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