The Igbos are one of Nigeria’s three main ethnic groups in a country of around 200 million people. Based in south-eastern Nigeria, this industrious and acephalous group has attracted a lot of attention from research during the last years. Much of this work has focused on the success of Igbos in cottage industries and informal training. Today, their learning system has become a topic of discussion.
Much of the research on Igbo’s success in business has been conducted through the traditional cultural lenses of anthropology and sociology. My co-authors and I have sought to go beyond these cultural frameworks to move to a commercial and management perspective, especially entrepreneurship.
I have been studying Igbo Entrepreneurship since 2008. In my previous article, my co-authors and I drew the illustrative case of the Nnewi culture. It is an Igbo enclave in southeastern Nigeria renowned for its high rate of productive entrepreneurship. It is known for its automation and manufacturing activities which, at the time of our research, had received only limited attention.
Almost a decade later, I co-author of an article who pointed out that “the informal apprenticeship system provides entrepreneurial learning that prepares the younger generation to go into business as a way of life”.
The role of family affinities and networks in business has been observed across geographies. Using family networks in this way contributes significantly to the economic growth of nations.
To better understand the effect of these family networks, my co-authors and I interviewed 25 Igbo entrepreneurs to find out what was the catalyst for the business model.
About the study
Our research identifies key variables associated with transgenerational inheritance and succession of businesses. Igbos, like most other indigenous groups, believe in maintaining a heritage not only of their language, but of other values, customs and norms. In particular, for the Igbos, business continuity seems essential to guarantee the existence of a transgenerational commercial legacy.
The study also highlighted the main cultural and community nuances of the Igbo people. These include the roles of Di-okpara (first son), Umunna (son of the earth), Ikwu (relatives) and Umuada (daughters of the earth). These ideas inform a contribution to the discourse on ethnic or indigenous entrepreneurship, which has both theoretical and political implications.
We then developed four themes that serve as points from which transgenerational entrepreneurship is nurtured among the Igbo. These are:
- “Nwaboi” (informal volunteering);
- the role of the first son (di-okpara), which is closely related to “afamu-efuna”;
- the independent and individualistic, yet communal, ie “acephalous” nature of the Igbos (“Igbo enwe Eze” – the Igbos have no king); and
- the collaborative and cultural initiative of entrepreneurship – the role of parents (Umunna).
First the Nwaboi learning system takes two forms, “Imu-Oru Aka” (learning a trade or skill) and “Imu-Ahia” (learning to trade) through all kinds of trade in various trades and skills.
Second, Igbo businesses survive through generations by identifying and educating sons who can take over the business. If the first son shows no interest, any other male in the family with potential is trained to take over the business. Indeed, the notion of “Di-okpara” highlights the importance of a male child (normally the first son) for the inheritance of the family and any succession plan. It is also linked to the notion “afamu-efuna”, which guarantees the lineage of the Igbos.
Third, there is the role of moderator of Umunna (sons of the earth), Umuada (daughters of the earth) and Ikwu (relatives). They are the arbiters of family or societal conflicts. The decisions of the Umunna are binding on the members of the clan. In addition, in the event of a family business conflict, the elders of the family intervene to settle the dispute. By resolving disputes internally, the mechanisms make it possible to avoid lengthy legal proceedings which often disrupt the functioning of companies. This makes the role of Umunna very powerful.
Just like Umunna, there is also the “Umuada” (Umu means people) of the first daughters (Ada). It is an association of influential indigenous women. The group goes beyond the first girls whose ancestry can be traced back to a village or town. The Umuada represents the interests of women and serves as a bridge between women and men.
In some cases, the Umuada also serves as a check on the abuse of power by the council of elders. Umuada may, by virtue of these powers, intervene in any dispute relating to commercial practices. In addition, women sometimes also engage in these business activities.
Generally speaking, arbitrators like Umunna and Umuada have tended to help shape new norms and beliefs. On the other hand, other Igbo structures help facilitate the creation of more efficient business processes. These include better financial frameworks. One example is Afam efuna, a fair “nwaboi” system overseen to some extent by guardians like Ikwu, Umunna and Umuada. These Igbo structures therefore allow the development of new markets and cultural innovation. They also allow the Igbos to retain the transgenerational commercial heritage and the intergenerational succession.
The culture of Igbo entrepreneurship dates back to the slave trade in the 15th century. Speak 1800s around 320,000 Igbos had been sold to slave traders both inside and outside their communities in Bonny, 50,000 to Calabar and Elem Kalabari.
This process continued until the abolition of the slave trade in the 1900s. Unlike most African communities, slaves of the Igbo ethnic group were exposed to the entrepreneurial spirit of their owners, including members of their own tribe who traded in commodities like spices, sugar, tobacco, cotton for export to the Americas, Europe and Asia. Long before the arrival of Europeans, Enslaved Igbos other Igbos as punishment for crimes, for payment of debts and as prisoners of war. The practice differs from slavery in the Americas.
Igbos built on this, venturing into various forms of entrepreneurship in pre-colonial times. Colonization has already found the Igbos first artisans, traders, traders and industrialists of the house. They maintained this culture of entrepreneurship through the structures and mechanisms described above.
The results of studies of Igbo ethnic entrepreneurship cannot necessarily be generalized to all other ethnicities. They also provide realistic and current examples of how African entrepreneurship is embedded in unique cultural phenomena. However, each of the elements of entrepreneurship and Igbo culture raises different questions, particularly how companies can support entrepreneurship across generations.
The lessons learned from the success of Igbo transgenerational entrepreneurship can certainly be adapted to other socio-cultural contexts. American journalist and author Robert Neuwirth alludes to this while talking about the Igbo learning system.
Inspired by the title of the famous book Chinua Achebe, one of the greatest poets of “Igbo” ancestry, scholars cannot let “things fall apart” in this quest to understand and act on the dynamics and potential of ethnic groups and their contribution to it. Mondial economy.
The Igbo model of entrepreneurship has demonstrated, time and time again, how to tackle ethnic and gender discrimination in society in general. This has obvious managerial, research and policy implications.
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