What an Apprenticeship System May Reveal About the Financial Health of Small Business Owners in Nigeria

Research shows how small business owners hone their financial capability as they build job skills.

As I walked through Alaba International and Idumota markets on a recent trip to Lagos, I was in awe of the bustling scene. Not even the rainy season’s torrential downpours could silence the Afrobeat music thumping in the background as buyers and sellers jockeyed for a better deal. Alaba International and Idumota markets reign supreme in Lagos, offering all the goods one can imagine. Alaba International, on the southeastern edge of the city, bursts at the seams with satellite dishes imported from China, secondhand PlayStations shipped in from the UK, and other electronics. Idumota buzzes on Lagos Island, just south of the city center, and is a shopper’s delight replete with wax print hauled over from Ghana, locally produced Nollywood movies, and so much more.

Amidst the action in the markets, I interviewed 22 small business owners who are clients of Accion Microfinance Bank (AMfB) to learn more about their financial health and capability. This research will guide us as we develop a framework to help micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) better understand and achieve financial health. The framework is part of a project we’re undertaking with the support of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth to increase the financial health and resilience of individuals and businesses around the globe.

Through my conversations with business owners, I learned about what owners viewed as determinants of their success. We hypothesized that MSME financial health rests on three pillars — earning a profit, having access to capital to seize opportunities, and being resilient to economic shocks. The interviews suggest that our framework is on the right track. For instance, limited and slow access to working capital was commonly cited as a barrier to taking advantage of fleeting business opportunities. We also learned that resilience is not as much about cash-on-hand as it is about being able to quickly shift to other income-generating activities to fill an immediate need.

But arguably, the most eye-opening thing I learned from these interviews had to do with financial capability and the path to entrepreneurship, specifically how owners were able to get the know-how and capital to start their businesses. I had assumed that a commercial bank or esusu — a rotating savings and credit association common in Nigeria — were the first two places that a budding entrepreneur would turn to raise seed funding. However, nearly all the merchants and traders I spoke with started their business with a lump sum they earned after spending several years as apprentices in their trade. This practice is part of the centuries-old Igbo apprenticeship model, Imu-Ahia.

The roots of Imu-Ahia date back to the European colonial era when the Igbo ethnic group native to southeastern Nigeria started to gain a reputation as highly-skilled traders and merchants. Today, the apprenticeship model has been widely adopted across the country. Most apprentices-to-be meet their “boss” — someone who is already well-established in a trade — through a family member or close contact. Reasons abound for why one might become an apprentice. Several entrepreneurs I spoke with decided at a young age that they wanted to be masters of a trade, so becoming an apprentice was always part of their plan. Others became an apprentice as a last resort, often after financial constraints forced them to put off academic or other pursuits.

During their tenure, which can range anywhere between three and seven years, apprentices observe and take notes on the tricks of the trade. They are assigned a variety of responsibilities, and eventually, they’re charged with promoting sales and store management. Although most apprentices aren’t paid, they are afforded accommodation, transportation costs, food, and clothing. Once the agreement — which can be either informal or formal — has been fulfilled, the newly anointed entrepreneurs are provided a lump sum to help them start their shop. One interviewee — a vendor of computer and phone accessories — was compensated with N800,000, the equivalent of approximately US$2,200, after spending five years as an apprentice. This is a decent payout considering he currently spends N350,000 (US $970) a year to rent his shop.

So what exactly does Imu-Ahia tell us about how these entrepreneurs perceive the determinants of their success? Many interviewees captured it perfectly when they shared advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: one must meticulously study and practice the skills needed to run a business before diving into it.

This advice resonates with our team at CFI because it positions financial capability — the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors necessary to make sound financial decisions — as an essential contributor to business success. The apprenticeship model serves as a learning and testing ground for those who are set on eventually running their own shop, much in the same way that the modern-day business incubator serves as a testing ground for startups. By the time individuals “graduate” from the apprenticeship model, they will have developed the knowledge and skills to manage business revenues and expenses. They also have plans to take advantage of investment opportunities and experience observing how businesses respond to the ups and downs of the market.

I only interviewed former apprentices who found success in the business world, so there’s still more to learn. We need to do more to understand the relationship between financial capability and business outcomes, especially business failures. Nevertheless, these qualitative findings echo the findings of other research. The National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a fascinating study that showed the differences in the psychological profile of wage workers, own-account workers, and small and medium enterprise (SME) owners. It found that “ability, motivation, and a competitive attitude are very important in differentiating SME and microenterprise owners.” The World Bank launched a project to measure financial capability of SMEs. Their analysis showed a positive correlation between financial capability and a firm’s size and level of sales.

The striking thing about what we learned in Lagos is not so much that financial capability contributes to business success, it is how, in the Nigerian system such capability is learned: over a period of years, through experience, and under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable mentor.

Keep reading the CFI Blog, where we’ll share future findings as we conduct surveys around the world on MSME financial health!

Join the Conversation

Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter.

<noscript><iframe src="https://www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-W5XP2HF" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden"></iframe></noscript>