What would have happened if Adam Smith had visited Africa?
If you don’t know Smith, you are not to blame. But you should know he did not create the confusion that the study of Economics these days has become. He had a pretty straightforward theory about how nations create wealth and prosperity; the freedoms of individuals to own property and transact freely. Put another way, wealth is created when individuals collaborate freely and gain mutually.
A cut from a TED talk by Robert Neuwirth, the American journalist who has frequented Lagos over the past decade, has gone a bit viral in the past week thanks to a tweet by Innocent Chukwuma (not the Innoson one). He devises a thought experiment that imagines what the forefather of Economics (Smith) would have made of the Igbo apprenticeship system. Neuwirth, fussing over and praising the hallowed tradition of masters settling their boys after serving them, ranked it as the largest business incubator platform on the face of the earth.
The mutual aid economy that makes markets like Alaba, Ariaria and Upper Iweka thrive rests on a sharing principle that requires masters to settle apprentices. We see these apprentices whenever we visit markets around the country but not many are conscious of how much of wealth creation in the nation depends on them. The informal economy creates by far more jobs than the formal economy and the public sector and these System D markets are a huge sector of the informal economy.
According to Neuwirth, three one-thousandths of one percent of the Nigerian population controls wealth equal to one-fourth of the GDP of the country. Contrast that with Kenya where one one-hundredth of the population controls everything but a fourth of its GDP. Imagine if more Nigerians are able to get their hands on resources that can enable them create wealth; money and infrastructure count as resources, but so does access to the sharing system that is street-wise and based on mentoring.
Neuwirth’s work is in agreement with what Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu describes as the challenge to development posed by Africa’s curricula. What Africans are being taught about how to develop, create wealth and join the league of prosperous nations does not often include what is already working for them. In a dramatic moment that was instructive, Ezeanya-Esiobu began her TED talk last year with an anecdote about how the “A is for Apple” teaching method perpetuates the abstraction of education to African children. In a similar light, the disregard of apprenticeship as a valid form of incubation and venture capital means we have failed to take advantage of the points of strength from which we can build on towards a sustainable future.
Apprenticeship can take various modes but there is no doubt as to whether, under the right iteration, it will deliver sustainable value. On the principle that anyone who applies energy over a long period towards leaning a particular craft has an ambition to produce a better living, there is no reason to be hesitant in making more of a case for apprenticeship as a valid system of learning and wealth creation. It may have began as a post-war emergency means of starting life afresh for a good number of Igbos in the mid 1970s but the fact that it is institutionalized in developed economies like Switzerland is a marker of its value and potential.
Nigeria’s economic progress cannot continue to be frustrated because of a one-dimensional impression of how to do education. There are alternatives to the economy lag that results from incessant strikes by educational unions that end up pushing forward graduation dates and make many ineligible for jobs they have spent university years studying for.
Watch Robert Neuwirth’s TED talk here
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