Student Apprenticeship: Imitating the learning culture of the Igbos

December 19, 2017
7 min read
Apprentice in Ariaria market, Aba

University of Nkwo Nnewi (UNN) in Anambra state was one of our stops during the recent Techpoint Innovation Tour. Well, this is no regular university, in case you are wondering when a new university hit the area. It's just how Onyinye Eze, the director of Sach, a motorcycle spare parts distributorship company, describes the commercial hub in Nnewi that has birthed so many businesses and entrepreneurs.

It's not hard to see why he likens the market to a university though, even without books or classrooms, clearly there was a lot to learn from all the hustle and bustle. Particularly, just like a regular school, many people in this market imbibe lifelong skills that would translate into a means of livelihood through apprenticeship.

Onyinye Eze, Director of Sach, Nkwo Nnewi
Onyinye Eze, Director of Sach

According to Onyinye, apprenticeship is a common trend in Nkwo Nnewi and other major markets in the South East -- it is impossible to find a business that doesn't use or didn't use one. Typically, apprentices, who are generally people with a desire to learn a particular skill or trade with the consent of the family, sign up to “serve” a master for a specified duration of time, where he/she becomes actively involved in the business processes and build competence over time.

Usually there is no direct financial reward for the apprentice who would invest considerable time and labour into the learning process until the end of the agreed period, after which the master who typically houses and feeds the apprentice throughout this time “settles them”, Settlement may mean, setting a business up for the apprentice or paying them a particular sum, depending on the agreement.


Today there are other variants of this model, regardless, they all involve an apprentice working with an experienced individual on some agreed terms to learn skills that will help them build their own businesses.

Ariaria market, Aba
Ariaria market, Aba

Commonly described as the most industrious tribe in Nigeria, the Igbos have come to rely on this proven model of learning to sustain their entrepreneurial spirit, like Onyinye says “business is in the blood”. Apprenticeship in the South East has become a way to help the community as well as businesses -- young people who don't have the opportunity to go through formal education can learn valuable skills, while employers can enjoy cheap labour as they build their business

What we can learn from the Igbos

In this part of the world, apprenticeship is generally associated with the unlearned and people in non-academic careers or the trades. For a lot of people, going through the formal system of education is first choice. Even when the unsuccessful 6-3-3-4 Nigerian education system was implemented, vocational education was an option reserved for students who were not academically sound.

However in today’s world, from blue collar to white collar jobs, skilled people are given top priority. Unfortunately, most of these critical skills cannot be learnt in traditional classrooms, especially considering the failed Nigerian education system. This why the general perception of apprenticeship must change.

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Just like the Igbos have built a reliable model of learning for communities through the apprenticeship scheme, it is time to imbibe a suitable apprenticeship scheme into Nigeria’s formal education system, especially in the IT space where the relevance of a university degree is frequently being questioned.

Countries like Germany and Switzerland have remarkable apprenticeship schemes that have resulted in a decreased unemployment rate. Switzerland, for example, operates a dual school system through its VET(Vocational Education and Training) program where students can learn in the classroom while working and earning on the job simultaneously. In an interview, Ursula Renold, head of education systems research in the KOF Swiss Economic Institute commented on the programme,

Students choose at age 15 if they want to pursue a traditional university route or if they will follow the vocational education pathway. VET students will learn and work as an apprenticeship for three or four years, while simultaneously continuing their studies in math, science, languages, etc. These studies are tied to their career — so they are learning in the classroom and then applying those skills on the job every week.

According to Quartz, apprentices in Switzerland work in small and large companies, hospital, banks, state of the art factories, insurance agencies While it may not be possible to replicate the carefully planned VET scheme in a country like Nigeria, it gives a good cue about how traditional apprenticeship and formal learning can be blended to improve employability skills.

It goes beyond technical skills

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Apprenticeships are the ideal vehicle to teach 21st century skills." -- Suzie LeVine, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland

When Josh Uma, CEO of Vigan press decided to set up a printing press after he realised the need for one in Umuahia, he became an apprentice in an established printing press for 3 months. Even though he admits it was a short period, he learnt enough to build a successful printing business.

However, apprenticeship isn't just about gaining skills in a particular area or craft, especially for young students. Martin Dahinden, Swiss ambassador to the U.S says,  “It’s not only about acquiring technical skills. Young people learn to integrate themselves into the adult world. They start to work in a team with people of all ages and learn how to work with a client ”

In the knowledge economy, where demands on the labour force are continuously changing, education systems must focus on preparing students to be lifelong learners. According to this World Bank resource, teaching students decision making, problem-solving skills and how to learn on their own and with others is crucial in enabling workers to compete in the global economy. And there’s no better way to help students achieve this than by exposing them to real-life situations where they can apply conceptual knowledge from classrooms to everyday problems.

So modern-day apprenticeship shouldn't be a one-way road with one final destination -- just like it isn't for the young Ibinayes, who gave me an interesting lesson on 3D designing and printing at the Ice hub in Portharcourt.

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Shade Ibinaye, an SSS1 Student of Imperial college introduced herself as a 3D designer that models objects on Google SketchUp.

“I got into the technology world at the age of 7, I picked an interest in drawing so my dad and his team at Ice hub provided me with necessary resources and encouraged me to learn 3D designing, now I can design any object on Google SketchUp,” she says

Emmanuel Ibinaye, on the other hand, specializes in 3D printing. They both work with their father, the owner of the hub, Wale Ibinaye, during their leisure time after school. Yet despite their technical skills, Shade is looking to become a doctor and Emmanuel, the aspiring inventor with a love for building stuff is still exploring his options.

Student working in a hub after school
Emmanuel Ibinaye

Yet it wasn't hard to see that these bright lads were picking up critical skills that will help them in any chosen career path.

Getting young people to embrace apprenticeship

Josh Uma believes many young people have lost the desire to learn tangible skills. His efforts to sensitise people to take on apprenticeship roles in his company has not been productive. “I have an operator that I pay much more than some bankers and he doesn't even have a degree. Now I am inviting people to come and learn for free but they are not willing,” he says

The average Nigerian child is programmed to believe that formal education is the only path to pursue. While formal education definitely has its benefits, it is obvious that it is clearly not enough in these present times. And while it is common for students to learn skills outside the school curriculum, a lot more can be achieved if these two learning processes can be fused. The dual learning system in Switzerland and Germany proves this.

A dual learning system may mean a total overhauling of our crumbling education system and other critical changes as well. Yet, If the Igbos can build a structure around informal learning to drive their entrepreneurial strides, then we as a country can build a formal education structure that imbibes apprenticeship if we work hard at it.

Writer. Interested in EdTech and tech careers
Writer. Interested in EdTech and tech careers
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