Imu-ahia: Trade Before School

In Eastern Nigeria, there is an Igbo apprenticeship system which gained prominence after the Civil War of 1967.

By the end of the War in 1970, the region was so devastated that money and human capital were scarce. Igbo people, in thousands, were unable to return to the homes they had built in other parts of the country. _ Oluwatosin Adeshokan (Stears Business).

Not only were they separated from their families and most of their properties lost, but livelihoods were also halted.

As bad as the situation was, it was perhaps the £20 policy that necessitated the need for a culture like Imu-ahia. Just after the war, Obafemi Awolowo proposed a policy that ensured that Biafrans were not allowed access to their pre-war savings. They only had mere £20 to live on.


Imu-ahia started because Igbo people needed to survive and secure a future for themselves. When the war ended, a lot of people could not go back to school. Vibrant young men and women had the option of farming, but the time required was not readily available. A lot of persons were dying of hunger, and a number of strange diseases were spreading fast. So trading became the only way to build back destroyed Igbo communities. Today, Imu-ahia has grown to become a cultural heritage in the East.

The premise for Imu-ahia was simple – business owners would take in younger boys, house them, feed them and have them work as apprentices in businesses while learning the ropes. After the agreed time for the training was reached, 6-8 years, a small graduation ceremony would be held for the Imu-ahias. They would be paid a lump sum for their services over the years, and this money will be spent on starting a business for the Imu-ahias.

Basically, the idea centers on taking young men off the streets and the perilous tendencies of idling to give them a purpose. They learn from a mentor and then establish their own ventures.

The Igbo Business Model

Beyond business mentorship, however, Imu-ahia also existed to build Igbo wealth. The idea was to make sure that all that the Igbo people worked for and gained, stayed within.

When a young boy indicates interest to work for a business owner, the message that goes with him instructs his benefactor to “look out for his brother”. It was the responsibility of “everyone who was standing to help others stand”. And that was how the Igbo saved themselves from the whirlwind that was going to wipe out the entire race.

Beauty From Ashes

One of the cities that was built on this kind of successive trading is Nnewi in Anambra state. Another that has gained prominence is Aba, Abia state. Goods, products, and merchandise that are of international standards are constantly produced and distributed.

A Forbes Africa report once showed that Nnewi has more naira billionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. Its success has influenced the development of many more “Igbo trade” hubs in Nigeria. Any wonder why big markets around the country are now home to Igbo traders with their boys.

What drives the Igbos?

Before the war, the Igbos were largely in their third generation of foreign-trained professionals. The war, however, ruined their chances of continuing, and their focus changed. With the loss of properties and homes, there was a serious need to rebuild.

Imu-ahias are taught to look for quality in almost anything, trade and operate in cooperative societies so they can send money home; all so one can have a house in the East.

The Culture Thrives

Even as Imu-ahia grows and is now being adopted by members of other tribes, there have been calls for Imu-ahia model to be taught in the university. It is often argued that Igbos have built empires for themselves without the need for formal education, but as the world changes, so do the dreams of people.

“An academic program will provide a young Igbo boy that has completed Imu-Ahia choices – the ability to go to the university or a polytechnic while crossing entrance hurdles will provide better quality and well-rounded people.” – Aisha Salaudeen

Where the above may be true, for most young men from the East, formal education will always be secondary to Imu-ahia. No matter the career path chosen, there will always be the need to do Imu-ahia first before venturing out or pursuing any passion. Most Igbo parents have sworn to ensure their children go through this process because it has come to stand as a form of rite of passage.

As a way of concluding, the contemporary style of nurturing tech companies by incubation hubs has long been Igbo Culture. What we went to Europe to adopt was right under our noses.

Like most things, the West has taken this practice and made it theirs. Now, they come back to teach us what learned from Nigerians. Great irony.

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