On a sunny Monday morning in Yaba Market in Lagos, James Igiri brings out some cotton bedspreads, puts them on the floor in front of his shop, and cuts them into sizes by yards to be sold to potential customers. He haggles with a female customer until they reach a consensus price, and successfully closes another sale.
“I started my cotton business after serving my oga [boss] for six years. With the skills and experiences I gathered over the years, I have been running my business successfully,” says 40-year-old Igiri, from Abia state in southeastern Nigeria.
Born in the town of Amurie-Nkporo in the Ohafia local government area, Igiri concluded his secondary school education in 2005. Despite his university ambitions, financial difficulties meant he could not continue his education at tertiary level.
Instead, he decided to serve one of his brothers in Lagos under the Igbo apprenticeship system known as Igba boi – a cultural practice where young Igbo boys are sent to businessmen in various cities to learn trades. When the boy has learned from his master, the master sets him up with capital and goods to start his own business.
Igiri started to serve his master in 2007 and learned how to trade cotton bedspreads until 2013, when he was given capital to start his own business. That launched in 2014, when he himself became an oga.
“It is a great feeling being an oga,” he says. “It was not easy serving someone. When I came to Lagos to serve, I felt like going back to the village. It was not easy because it is something I had not been into before. I felt the impact. I learned the trade in addition to being obedient and submissive to my oga.
“Igba boi is good. Without it I would not have had the skills and experience that I have now and the capital to start my own business. Igba boi makes you strong, obedient, and exposed. It is very good and it will make you versatile.”
Ndubuisi Ekekwe, a Nigerian academic and entrepreneur, says that the Igbo apprenticeship system was propelled by Igbo leaders when young men started to leave the region after the end of the civil war in 1970. After the defeat of Biafra, a breakaway state dominated by the Igbo people, the Nigerian government seized the bank accounts of many Igbos but issued them with a small grant to start afresh. Many young men used the money to travel to various cities around the country and start businesses.
“As the elders blessed them, they dropped a message: ‘onye aghala nwanne ya’ [do not leave your brethren behind],” Ekekwe told the BBC’s Igbo service in May. Ekekwe, whose work on Igba boi has been published in the Harvard Business Review, sees what followed as a valuable case study in “stakeholder capitalism” that has produced several prominent Nigerian businessmen, including car magnate Innocent Chukwuma.
“As people made progress, they came back home to pick their kinsmen, dividing and sharing opportunities in the cities. And with that playbook, a region that should be the poorest in Nigeria (they lost the war) is today regarded by the United Nations as the most secure on human development,” he told the BBC.
Supporters say the system has developed numerous entrepreneurs in Nigeria and beyond and helped improve the economic welfare of the Igbo people. It has enabled people to acquire lifelong skills such as running and nurturing businesses and building value chains, they say.
Twenty-seven-year-old Uchenna Ogile chose the Igba boi system over formal education, concluding his secondary schooling in 2014 before travelling to Lagos to learn the cotton trade. He served his elder brother from 2014 to 2020, when he settled down to start his own business.
“It was a tough journey,” he says. “It is not easy staying under someone and the person controls you. I endured and I learned. The advantage of Igba boi is that you are going to start your own business very soon. It is a matter of time and you will have the experience.”
Ogile, who was given capital of N800,000 ($2,100) to start his own business, is now looking for a shop at Lagos’s bustling Yaba market, a magnet for Igbo apprentices.
The importance of education
However, the system has its drawbacks. Some young people are taken to their masters while in primary or secondary school. When they get to the cities, their education is abandoned. Igiri says some ogas need to do more to ensure that the young people who are brought to them have already learned how to read and write.
“The person should be able to write and defend his product. Our business is all about calculating and measuring cotton by metres and inches. If you’re not educated or do not attend school, it will be hard for you,” he says.
Others complain that bad ogas mistreat their apprentices and can summarily fire them without warning or compensation, as most agreements are merely verbal. Institutionalising the largely informal system would be one way to address apprentice security while retaining the benefits of the tradition, advocates argue.
Igiri believes that if Igbo businessmen maintain the Igba boi culture and regularly return to their villages to pick the next generation to train, many more entrepreneurs will emerge in the coming years.
“I am currently training someone from my village in the trade,” he says. “I plan to train more because it is a good culture that should be sustained.”