As an Igbo boy growing up in Aba, a lot of the young men around me were Nwaboys also known as apprentices serving their master for a couple of years, in return the master is expected to settle them.  I got acquainted with this particular business arraignment that was quite a common part of our culture. Perhaps, the familiarity of it is the reason I took it for granted and didn’t put much stock in it until now.

Last week, while doing some cursory research on the internet, I stumbled upon a TedTalk speech. This talk was given by Robert Neuwirth and when I listened, it not only triggered my close knowledge of the issue but left me feeling amazed at how easy it is to take enduring systems in any sphere for granted especially when they are not packaged as a form of the leading school of thought.

Speaking on” The age-old sharing economies of Africa – and why we should scale them, Robert, who is an author and investigative reporter spent some time investigating street markets and the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, while writing one of his books, he learned some new insights about the informal service sector and  how they were starting to drive global stage conversations about informal economies and their role in development.


The Nwaboy System

While sharing these insights at his TEDTalk, he spoke of an example of the mutually beneficial economy model in operation here in Nigeria. Drawing from his experience at the Alaba International Market in Lagos, he highlighted the age-old apprentice model popularized by the Igbos. Referred to in lay terms as the nwaboy system and commonly depicted in Nollywood movies, the dynamics of the business model comprised of two major characters- the “master” and the “servant”. This system has produced a revolving door of merchants in large billion naira markets across cities in the country like Aba, Onitsha, Nnewi, Kano, etc. This system can be credited for its working business accelerator innovation long before many of the accelerator programs we see today.


Here’s how the nwaboy system works- a business owner gets an apprentice who understudies the business and is mentored by the owner for an agreed-upon timeframe sometimes for as long as 7-10 years. At the end of the period, where the apprentice is deemed to have gained comprehensive know-how of the business, the “master” then “settles” the apprentice which translates to providing investment for him to startup up his own similar business in the same line of trade. Someday, this apprentice will become a “master” getting an apprentice of his own to mentor and on and on the cycle continues.


Essentially, it is a mutually-beneficial agreement. On the one hand, the master stands to gain human capital to drive efficient business operations and an increase in revenue. Some masters have more than one apprentice at a time. On the other hand, the apprentice is exposed to an extensive learning experience almost akin to what is obtainable in more organized forms of learning, access to a network and is ultimately guaranteed venture capital to offset startup costs at the end of the apprenticeship.


Beyond business skill, a contributory factor of human capital development is character development which can be exemplified in traits such as integrity, consistency, hard work, accountability, inter-personal relationships communication, proactive-ness, tenacity, fortitude etc. Over the training period, these traits are ingrained in the apprentices alongside the business skills. Apprentices that do not display good character traits have a harder time “graduating” from the program and getting settled” because, in the end, these traits are instrumental for business survival and success.


What I Am Learning from It.

  • The first insight I am gleaning from the Igbo apprentice model is its potential as a viable tool for tackling youth unemployment. As the dynamics for the future of work continue to unfold, it is becoming apparent that formal education is not the only way to go. Rather, knowledge sharing and digital innovation are fast becoming prevalent as the solution to reducing the burden of unemployment. As it stands, the informal economic network is reportedly responsible for about 1.8 billion jobs, the world over. If we bring that reality into the unemployment challenge we currently face in the country, it’s easy to see the power that the informal market economy has in engaging young people profitably.


  • Another lesson is the fact that capital without experience or access to mentorship resources can become counterproductive. Businesses do not survive on the brilliance of ideas alone but the success of execution. For upcoming entrepreneurs, regardless of the presence or absence of investment capital, it is important to know that there is a time to learn and serve and cultivate a mentor relationship just as there is a time to lead a vision otherwise we would produce half-baked entrepreneurs who haven’t been schooled in the art of running businesses and who can’t do business sustainably.


Across different industries, if we take a look at the number of Nwaboys in existence and the backstories of how some Igbo billionaires like Cosmas Nduka (Coscharis), Cletus Ibeto, Innocent Chukwuma (Innoson) started off, it proves Neurwith’s theory that “the Nwaboy apprentice model is indeed the largest business incubator platform in the world”.


Worthy of note also is this, because the Igbos are known for their resilient ability to thrive in business in almost any habitable city of the world, their potential for entrepreneurial success on a global scale is enormous. If we can successfully scale this model, it would help leverage the potential that this model possesses to increase sustainable business ventures, empower entrepreneurship and influence the future of work and sustainable development.

Here’s the link to the TEDTalk here;

Snippet –

Full talk:

But, just before you head off, I would like to hear your thoughts. Have you ever considered the Igbo business accelerator? Let’s engage.