Apprenticeship and mentorship – the key to technology talent development?
Recently, there was a series of articles in the UK Guardian about precolonial African civilizations. My hometown Benin City was featured. The article took a lot of people by surprise, and many found it difficult to believe that such an advanced culture existed in Africa so many years before colonization. It didn’t fit in with the “Africa is a Dark, Under-Developed Continent” narrative. The “Dark Continent” narrative has never served us well. Even with advances in technology and the proliferation of easily accessible knowledge, perceptions have hardly changed.
The discovery of an advanced precolonial Edo civilization surprised a lot of people but what may even be more surprising is the fact that the earliest business incubation and acceleration models may have been developed by the Igbo traders and artisans from Eastern Nigeria.
For a very long time, a model has existed in Eastern Nigeria where artisans or traders take in young people for apprenticeships. These apprentices learn from hands-on experience and are eventually set up to run their businesses with seed funding provided by the individual who mentored them. This practice is called “Imu Ahia” and it has been the secret to the success and the creation of vast commercial distribution hierarchies and networks formed by the Igbo. It has enabled them to dominate commerce in our part of this world.
There is a lot that Nigerian technology can learn from this model. Mark Essien the founder of the Nigerian Hotels booking platform – hotels.ng has always said – “The best way to learn how to build startups is by working at one.” “Imu Ahia” has proven this to be right for generations before, we just never saw the similarity between the pure commerce startup and technology startup. The incubation and acceleration models are also similar. A technology business is ultimately a business, and there is a lot to learn from those who have succeeded in building resilient models that have defined our informal local retail and services industries.
When the apprentice trained under “Imu Ahia” completes their tutelage, there is a ceremony performed to mark this successful completion called a ‘Freedom Ceremony’. This Ceremony is similar to Accelerator ‘Demo Days’. Members of the public are invited to be part of the official introduction of the newly-minted businessman. The only difference is that the primary investor in the new venture is the one who incubated it. There is typically a prior relationship via kinship between both parties, so other family members get invited, and they also contribute to the new entity. This model is how most Igbo businesses start. The chances of survival of the new businesses are reinforced further by providing informal trade finance as the new venture becomes part of a large distribution supply chain.
Hotels.ng recently accepted some young people as interns and after their internship, there was a ceremony performed to showcase the interns before releasing them into the ecosystem. I think this is a great model that others should emulate. I was the beneficiary of such a system. I was given the opportunity by my uncle to work with computers and learn during my national service year, and I ended up not only working for a technology company but building one. I paid this forward by taking in interns who also came to learn and became excellent.
The first intern we took into our company Swifta, was a young man who had not been able to pass the university degree matriculation examinations. He ended up in the Diploma in Data Sciences program. A colleague introduced him as “a promising young man with a keen interest in technology.” We decided to give him a chance and a brand new computer to learn with all by himself. He ended up not just being one of our best developers ever. He went on to get a First Class degree in Computer Science and a Ph.D. on a full scholarship. He now builds sophisticated trading platforms for some of the largest hedge funds in the world. He is now also investing in technology startups and founders.
I believe internship and apprenticeship in Nigerian technology could become institutionalized as “Imu Ahia” has been done. It would not just be a great model to provide the ecosystem with depth; it would provide a lot of resilience. I think the best investors in entrepreneurs are other entrepreneurs who have walked the same path. Empathy and relevant advice which comes from such relationships are more valuable than the money provided by investors who are only interested in the financial upside.
As I write this, I am in the airport on my way to Nairobi as a mentor for the very first African Google Launchpad Start program for technology startups. Google Launchpad emphasizes mentorship as the most valuable resource for entrepreneurial growth. I totally agree with this model as I avoided a lot of mistakes in business just by working informally with my uncle for over ten years after my NYSC and just learning. I am still learning from him and sometimes just visit him to listen to him talk about his experiences.
The last time, I met him, we had a discussion about China and how much progress they had achieved because of the choices the leadership had made. I was surprised and impressed at how much he had read on the topic. I took it up as a challenge to learn more as well. That is what mentors do. They challenge us to become a better version of ourselves and not just clones. Nigerian technology needs more internships, apprenticeship and mentors. We need an “Imu Ahia” for Technology. Who knows? Maybe it will become so successful that Silicon Valley and others will want to learn more from us and the Igbo trader or artisan.