How Young Igbo Traders Toil For Career Break Under Slippery ‘Boy-boy’ System

Oshodi market

It was midday Monday at Oshodi market, Lagos. Daniel, a teenage boy sat expectantly on a bench at the frontage of his master’s shop. As several people walked by him in the busy market, ”wetin you wan buy,” he enquired in Pidgin English.

Daniel Chiagozia is a seventeen years’ old apprentice, also called ‘boy-boy’ among the Igbo tribe in Lagos. He told Peoples Gazette that he could not continue with his education because there was no financial support for him as his father’s second son. His father had preferred to sponsor his first son, Daniel’s elder brother in school as he could not afford to send them both.

Daniel was encouraged by his family to learn a trade from a master, who is now in charge of his welfare for the next seven years until he becomes a master himself.

For many decades young adults have been enrolled into the Igbo apprenticeship system based on an agreement between the businessman or maybe a relative, and the guardian or parents to teach them a trade and make them bosses by fulfilling the settlement plan agreed upon after rendering service for between two to 15 years, depending on the trade.

Many parents who cannot afford a formal or tertiary education for their kids go ahead with these options for their children to be self-sufficient and independent.

“I have been learning the trade for two years, my father brought me here to learn because he has no money to finance the education of both my brother and myself at the same time. We have five boys in the family and I’m the second,” Daniel said.

“I was schooling in Anambra State before I dropped out from school at senior secondary class 1. My father, who is a teacher, values education. He told my master to allow me to further my education while I serve him, but my master explained to me that I am the only one at the shop so I can not go to school, for now. He has agreed to settle me after spending the expected years he agreed upon with my father,” he added.

“My father never forced me to learn a trade, I voluntarily agreed to learn a trade at age 15. My master has been nice to me, he allows me to visit my family every Christmas.”

Bittersweet experiences for the apprentices.

The Igbo apprenticeship system also called the ‘boy-boy system’ is a communal mentorship system among the southeastern people of Nigeria. It is being practised to transfer knowledge and skills to young adults and teenagers.

A 2014 study on Igbo Entrepreneurial activity published in the International Journal of Scientific and Technology Research, explained the Igbo Trade Apprenticeship System (ITAS) as a practice that results from Nigeria’s communal way of living where one person’s child is everyone’s child and village elders traditionally assumed responsibility for the youth population.

The system, common among young boys and men in Igbo tribe operating in several big cities and communities in Nigeria, became more pronounced after the civil war in 1970. Many successes, as well as misfortunes, have happened while people live with the realities of the trading system.

Several people have gathered experience from their bosses who have mastered the art and commerce of the trade within their own specialities.

“It is not easy to serve under someone because you live the life of somebody else until you become a master yourself you cannot do what you want, or decide the time to sleep and wake up, but after the agreement, you will also have people to serve you,” with a glimpse of hope Collins Abdul at Ladipo market said.

Busy day at Ladipo market2
A busy day at Ladipo-Oshodi market, Lagos.

Another apprentice at Mushin market, simply identified as Abuthi, said he has been under the apprenticeship programme for seven years so that he can be financially independent when he moves back to Enugu State after serving his master. He told The Gazette’s reporter that he decided to learn the trade because he was struggling with his academics.

“I will be settled this year then I will travel back to Enugu to settle down with my business. That was where I was brought to work in Lagos with my master for seven years and I have only traveled once to my village in Enugu state. I was not academically sound that was why I decided to serve but when you serve someone it can never be like home. I am happy that I will soon have my shop and settle,” he said.

A man identified as Man-P, at Oshodi market shares his experience with The Gazette. Man-P, as fondly called by customers in Oshodi market, said after he had mastered the trade, his boss refused to pay him to set up his own business.

Man-P who is not related to his boss noted that the agreement was that his boss would help him establish his own business, saying that “before I started working with him, I already learnt everything about the business, my experience with him is good and bad because when you’re working with someone, you are having an expectation at the end and that’s the good aspect.

“The bad aspect is that you are like a slave when you’re working with someone, you’re not allowed to do things on your own without permission. When a customer gives us something, we have to take permission before using it.”

The secondary school graduate, however, said he can’t really say he regrets not attending a higher institution, “it’s too late for me to decide now, but I’ll say I prefer working with somebody and later being established, depending on how long it would be,” he noted.

Trade masters

The apprenticeship system in Nigeria is executed in some major forms. It leaves the apprentice to choose either to learn a craft or learn a trade, all with the aim of transferring knowledge and skills.

While all types are geared towards the transfer of knowledge of entrepreneurial skills, they differ in approach. While some come with a settlement plan after learning, others require that an apprentice pay the master to acquire the required expertise of a craft. This is commonly practised among all tribes in Nigeria.

In the settlement system (commonly practiced among the Igbos), the master is totally responsible for the apprentice’s welfare as the latter serves him for a stipulated period.

Like the apprentices, the masters also have stories of successes and failures from the system. Many of them who are also graduates of the apprenticeship system have tales of their challenges with keeping the empowerment tradition.

Nnana Onyebuchi, a store owner at Mushin market, said, “The system helped me out of poverty because I decided to serve my master so that I can feed my family.  My parents are poor. There was no money for me to go to school. My father died from an illness leaving my mother as a widow with kids seven so I had to serve and learn a trade to support my family.  I came to the city to serve my boss for seven years, I am now the breadwinner. This is why I can not train anyone due to my financial struggles, but we thank God,” he said.

Similarly, Chukwuna Ogbonnaya, at Oshodi market, shares his experience with The Gazette. He became an apprentice at a very tender age, serving for 12 years both in Nigeria and overseas to gather enough experience as he was not educated.

“I served my boss for 12 years, I spent 7 years in Nigeria and 5 years abroad. He is a big man in Aba market. My uncle introduced me to him after I finished my primary school education and started serving him then I was not in school. After I served him in Nigeria he settled me with travelling overseas and I left with him to serve 5 years, when I returned he opened a shop for me in Lagos,” Mr Chukwuma said.

Mr Chukwuma is now known as an industrious trader at Oshodi Ankara market, he has been in business for 15 years now with two shops and a big warehouse in the market.

“I have left my master since 2005. Now I have two shops. I have trained two people. The first person was very faithful so I settle him with N1 million and a shop but the second person that left last year, left when the economy was hard so I was able to settle him with N500,000,” he said.

“I have no regrets because I never had the opportunity of going to school. I sponsored my nephew to be a mechanical engineer. I’m from a poor background. I had no choice but to look for my survival at a young age and ‘boy boy’ have been profitable because Igbo people have been financially stable rather than being a tyrant.” he said.

At Ladipo market, a master trader, Sunday Ezenwa, said some apprentice ‘boy-boy’ are not strangers but relatives and they must equally be settled once they are set for marriage  “We settle people depending on the years they have spent with us or maybe the relationship or commitment towards the job.

“When I got married my brother-in-law was given to me as my responsibility so I am in charge of his welfare and that of my wife till today unless he wants to marry he cannot leave my shop or house because that is when I will decide to settle him with a business so he can take care of his family,” he said.

Also, at Ladipo market, Chibundu Tochukwu said: “I served my master for seven years. I left Abia state in Nigeria for Benin Republic to learn after that I moved on with my life. As a man, you have to serve a master.  I have graduates learning the business under me. They are learning and not serving for just six months. It is a life-changing experience that helps people even when they are not educated so they can feed their family. Education is not very important because we support the graduates among us,” he said.

Jobless graduates

Latest data from the National Bureau of Statistics indicated that 33 per cent (23,187389) of working age citizens are unemployed. Many of these graduates are not lucky with getting white-collar jobs, many of them learn trades, crafts or join family businesses to survive. Even some university graduates have also opted for the ‘boy-boy’ system as The Gazette’s findings show.

Samuel Ifeanyi, a graduate of Electrical/Electronics Engineering at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka said: “My brother is a product of the boy-boy system and he sponsored my education to become a graduate. It is a favourable system for people who are ready to serve a master.

“He has trained four people after he left his boss. And because there is no job for me after graduation, I decided to join him in business since I still depend on him for my personal welfare.

“Some people have served their masters while I was in school and they are now financially buoyant while I’m still searching for a job, but I have no regrets going to school because I can travel abroad,” he said.

Also, Ibekwe Izuchukwu who is a trader at Mushin market said he joined the family business as he was not well paid in his former job.

“I never served anybody because this is my father’s business, he is late now. I am a certified scientist from a Nigerian university but we are underpaid in our field so i decided to take on the family business, after working for three months,” he said.

Eric Ikechukwu, a Banking and Finance graduate said: “I learned the business for two months because there was no job. I learned the business with all my effort for two months because this was what I had to depend on for survival after I graduated from university, I got capital from my brother and learned from his friend,” he said.

Experts speak

Weighing in on the matter, Sheriffdeen Tella, a professor of economics and Jide Ojo, a finance expert, said education should be prioritised but the Igbo-apprenticeship culture should not be ignored.

Mr Tella, said that the system should be industrialised because it is a profitable system for young entrepreneurs, but he emphasised that formal education should be encouraged.

“It is training to make people self-employed. They can become business owners which is good to catch them young. The Igbo entrepreneurship is mainly trading but I think it can also lead to industrialisation. I think the kind of format the Igbo should emphasise should focus on science, technology and industrialisation rather than mere trading so as you are studying you are learning within the context of business. So you will not have to serve a boss for like 5-10 years,” he said.

”They have ignored education totally. The only aspect is how to count money and how to tell you to do business but that should not be considered. If it does not stop them from getting an education, the only thing that I can say all those things that they have learnt will be part of them by the time they go into the tertiary institution they already have some vocation in mind, this will guide them on the kind of study they want to undertake,” he added.

However, Mr Ojo said that the apprenticeship system has supported young entrepreneurs and boosted the country’s economy without any formal education.

“The Igbo’s should be commended this is something that has been working. It has been sustained for decades in popular markets. It is an economic boost for the SMEs system. It is made to settle them so they can be established.

“They do not necessarily need to have formal education. It is an informal education that has paid off and many people who went into this apprenticeship system have become millionaires in their own right,” he said.

Speaking on how the system can create jobs and reduce unemployment, Mr Ojo explains that the Chinese industrial revolution can be adopted into the already established system, adding that there are two sides to the system. Some get paid, while others are sent packing with nothing.

“What is lacking in the business model is research and development. The system is largely trading except in the Aba market so the industrialisation of the system can be difficult because we don’t have manufacturers in Nigeria.

“So they can adopt the Chinese system into the Nigeria market just like we have it in Aba market. We can go through industrialisation through the apprenticeship anywhere people will learn the trade, the system and industry and go-ahead to have their own share of the industry,” he said.

”The boss can extend the year by two-three more years just to delay the settlement plan while some people will not be settled at all but the benefits outweigh the losses,” he added.

The financial expert also said that the government should continue to support the entrepreneur with a loan scheme.

“The government is already giving people money to start up their businesses with so many schemes. We have trader money, farmer money but they should be encouraged to give people start-up money or a loan that lasts for 5 years so people can use the knowledge that they have acquired during their apprenticeship year” he said.


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