The Igbo apprenticeship system (IAS) is a masterclass in the power of collaboration. The product of the Igbo ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria, it played a prominent role in resuscitating the local economy after the disastrous civil war in the late 1960s. That feat alone offers a roadmap for success to any struggling economy.

On a recent Let's GROW X space, prominent Nigerian ReFi authorities of Igbo origin spoke about the IAS. One of the points they made was that the IAS was a form of stakeholder capitalism. Others have also made the same connection. This struck me as odd. I always thought the IAS was more closely aligned with the principles of collaborative finance.

Alas, the bottom line is that we in the Web3 space have much to learn from a system that prioritises many of the values we hold dear. In this article, I will provide a brief background on the IAS, explain why I don't think it's a good example of stakeholder capitalism, and offer some key learning points for Web3.

Understanding the Igbo Apprenticeship System (IAS)

The IAS originated from the Igbo people, natively known as Ṇ́dị́ Ìgbò, an ethnic group primarily residing in southeastern Nigeria and making up 18% of the country's population. It offers a secure and nurturing environment for young individuals to learn certain skills under the guidance of seasoned mentors without money changing hands - like a barter economy where services are exchanged for knowledge. Throughout the training period, the master takes care of the apprentice's needs and the apprentice assists the master in the shop. The IAS has been so successful that the Nigerian stereotype of Igbo people being exceptionally business-minded arises from the disproportionate number of wealthy businessmen the system produces.


The IAS predates Nigerian independence in 1960. One of its most notable pioneers was Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu. Up until his death in 1965, he took in people from his community (Nnewi), trained them in his various businesses, and helped them launch their own enterprises in Lagos. Over time, the traders repeated the same process to enrich their own kinsmen. The system’s popularity really surged, however, in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War in 1966.

On January 15th 1966, a group of rebel soldiers launched Nigeria's first coup, killing, among others, the prime minister, premier of the northern region, and premier of the western region. The other major ethnic groups in the country believed it was an Igbo coup because only one of the 22 casualties was of Igbo origin. The resulting anti-Igbo pogroms in the north slaughtered between 10,000 and 30,000 Igbos and ultimately led to a secessionist move by the Igbos in the southeastern region. A bloody civil war soon followed as the federal government sought to starve the newly formed Republic of Biafra into submission. Somewhere between 500,000 and two million Biafran civilians died of starvation.

After the war, the federal government took other forms of revenge. It returned only 20 pounds (US$500 today) each to Igbos who held money in Nigerian bank accounts and confiscated all their real estate. Because these policies impoverished the Igbos, they turned to the apprenticeship system to drive wealth creation and distribution. Masters of trade leveraged the system to teach their kinsmen the ropes and help them launch enterprises. The IAS offered a proven path to economic recovery without requiring significant upfront capital. Over time, the Igbo economy regained its stability and became the country's most resilient regional economy.


The Igbo apprenticeship system takes two forms: Imu Ahịa and Igba boi. The Igba boi scheme emphasises a communal bond in which the master has greater responsibility for the apprentice's future success. Imu Ahịa offers a more transparent structure but with less emphasis on long-term support.

Igba boi

The Igba boi scheme involves a boy being brought to serve a master in a specific domain. There's no written agreement dictating the completion of the apprenticeship or the settlement the master will provide. Instead, these aspects are determined by the mutual understanding and respect between the master and the family of the apprentice. Throughout the years of service, the apprentice must live with and obey their master even when conditions are unfavourable. Upon completion, the master is morally obligated to "settle" the apprentice with financial gifts or stocked shops provided they served diligently and honestly.

Imu Ahịa

Under the Imu Ahịa scheme, there's usually a written agreement between the master and apprentice stating the number of years the apprentice will serve to learn the trade and secrets of the business. In this system, some masters require that their apprentices pay a fee for the years they'll learn under them. Additionally, the master is not obligated to settle the apprentice or set up a business for him. Once the program is completed, both parties go their separate ways.


The IAS has a number of benefits, including:

  • Escape from poverty - The IAS provides a path to wealth without initial capital. Living expenses are taken care of, so even the most impoverished can improve their station.
  • Practical knowledge and skill transfer - Conventional education in Nigeria prioritises theory over practice, leaving graduates unprepared for the real world. Apprentices have the advantage of learning valuable knowledge from their master and getting hands-on experience.
  • Reduced risk - The IAS aligns with Robert Greene's theory that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. After the 7-15 years the apprentice serves under the master, they have the knowledge, experience, skills, and connections to immediately start their own business.


But there are also some issues:

  • Gender bias - The IAS has traditionally been a male domain. The physical demands of the work, long-distance travel requirements, and concerns about young, unmarried women living with older male masters were not in alignment with local culture.
  • Exploitation - The master-apprentice power dynamic does leave apprentices vulnerable and without recourse. In some cases, the apprentice is treated more like a domestic servant or is kept on longer due to fabricated reasons.
  • Limited formal education - It's a common occurrence that IAS graduates neglect to pursue formal education, with some even proclaiming, "White man education no dey give money ooh." Interestingly, this has left many of them vulnerable to scams and even hesitant to hire literate individuals.

On the gender bias front, the system today is evolving and we are seeing more women challenging traditional limitations. One such example: a talented shoemaker from Calabar named Idong.

My connection to Idong began in childhood. My mom was a regular customer at the family workshop. The father, a sought-after shoemaker in the early 2000s, passed down the craft to his entire family, including Idong. Even when onlookers tried to discourage him with the idea that shoemaking was a man's job, he didn't relent in training her. Today, Idong has become a prominent figure in Calabar's shoemaking scene and her workshop is a hub for aspiring shoemakers. The last time I visited, she had roughly fifteen apprentices under her.

Alignment with stakeholder capitalism

Stakeholder capitalism is an economic system in which businesses balance the interests of all stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and the environment, rather than just shareholders. It sounds positive, particularly in comparison to the more traditional shareholder capitalism, but it can easily be manipulated in favour of the shareholder. Despite arguments to the contrary, we shouldn't try to align the IAS with the principles of stakeholder capitalism. Otherwise, we risk ascribing corporate characteristics to a system that is, in fact, inherently collaborative.

These are the reasons I avoid comparing the IAS to stakeholder capitalism:

Not always in the apprentice's best interest

While the IAS aims to equip young people with valuable skills, it doesn't always prioritise the apprentice's interests. In some cases, children are pressured into the IAS due to behavioural issues at home, even if they desire formal education. Parents, perhaps due to limited resources, justify this decision by claiming it prevents the children from "wasting" their lives, despite the fact that there is no guarantee of financial success.

Local economic prosperity

The success of a graduated apprentice can have a big impact on family wealth and the local economy. Imagine Mama, now with a larger income, buying palm oil in bulk from the local trader, who uses the profit to buy higher-quality palm oil from local producers to attract more customers. The trader also needs more plastic bottles, which he gets from another community member. These interconnected transactions create a cycle of wealth distribution in the community that leads to an increase in its overall prosperity.


The IAS is largely informal, relying heavily on trust, peer pressure, and strong community ties to ensure apprentices complete their training and repay any debts incurred during their service. If an apprentice steals from their master, the master returns to the village and informs the apprentice's family. To protect its reputation and avoid social isolation, the family will often make every effort to repay the stolen amount. However, these actions come at a steep cost for the accused. They may face permanent estrangement from their family, and even if reconciliation occurs, the stigma of theft can lead to lasting social exclusion.

Community development

IAS graduates often give back to their communities by funding essential infrastructure projects, such as schools, hospitals, market stalls, and potable water infrastructure. This sense of community development can turn into a friendly competition. For example, if Emeka builds a school, Okafor might be inspired to build a hospital, prompting Arinze to install a solar power grid for the entire village. This "constructive rivalry" drives continuous progress and innovation, ultimately leading to improved infrastructure and services for the community.

What we can learn from the IAS

If anything, the IAS more closely aligns with the collaborative financial model. Working together throughout the entire process, from the initial selection of an apprentice to their graduation and beyond, is critical to the system's success. It has allowed the Igbo to bypass the government and find their own solutions to economic hardship. For that, we in the Web3 space have much to learn from the IAS.

Community growth

The Igbo business community demonstrates a unique approach to economic success. It's based on the idea that community growth is better for everyone over the long term than individual growth. They are, for example, famous for their willingness to recommend competitors if they cannot fulfill a specific need. This focus on mutual benefit creates an ecosystem where everyone can prosper and no one is left out. Web3 could do great things if it aligned with this ethos.

Mentorship and knowledge sharing

A key challenge in the Web3 job market is the disconnect between available positions and the current talent pool. Companies rely on recommendations from closed circles to fill roles and are often unwilling to invest in training new hires. A mentorship or knowledge-sharing network could bridge this gap. By connecting skilled individuals with relevant jobs, facilitating knowledge transfer through mentorship programs, and promoting accessibility through training opportunities, such a network could promote a more inclusive Web3 job market and more rapidly scale up the level of talent.

Values and Ethics

The IAS is built on cultural values like hard work, respect, and community spirit. Web3 projects can incorporate similar ethics-based principles to ensure sustainability. We have scenarios whereby projects farm their communities. In the ReFi space, not all projects that get grant funding are transparent about the spending process. Case in point, I was following a story from a popular Giveth contributor where he mentioned that a project that rug-pulled was bold enough to apply for more funding from the forthcoming Optimism RetroPGF4 round.


The Igbo apprenticeship system, existing even before independence, is an early example of collaborative finance in West Africa. Ironically, the devastating Nigerian Civil War brought about its resurgence. As the Igbo people faced immense hardship, they turned to the IAS to rebuild their community and create wealth through collective effort.

For young men, the IAS offered a viable path out of poverty. It focused on practical skills, giving graduates an advantage over those with only theoretical knowledge from schools. By learning from experienced masters, apprentices reduced risk and increased their chances of success when starting their own businesses. The system also brought its drawbacks, including gender bias, risk of exploitation, and limited access to formal education.

A prevailing misconception about the IAS is that it's a model of stakeholder capitalism. On the contrary, they offer contrasting approaches. On one hand, stakeholder capitalism focuses on long-term benefit for all stakeholders, depends on the legal system for enforcement, prioritises competition over collaboration, and lacks a community-first approach to prosperity. On the other, the IAS focuses exclusively on skill development, relies on reputation for enforcement, prioritises collaboration over competition, and takes a community-first approach to prosperity.

Web3 has much to learn if we want to see the kind of long-term success achieved by the IAS. We need to embrace our competitors, not push them away; build mentorship and knowledge-sharing networks to expand the talent pool; and we need to instill strong cultural values that bring trust back to the industry.

The IAS has done so well that it has been adopted by other tribes both in and out of Nigeria. One shot of ogogoro in honour of all Igbo ancestors who established this system. It's truly a case study in collaborative economic prosperity.

Daalu ooh!

This article represents the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of CARBON Copy.