How lack of apprentices, emergence of ‘graduate artisans’ affect Nigeria’s SMEs

Ibadan Tailor Apprentice
Ibadan Tailor Apprentice

Fifty-three-year-old Akanni Kareem adjusted two heavy tyres dangling delicately on his head, his left hand placed around the waist for support. Although he said he was weak and tired, three damaged tyres belonging to his customers must be fixed before sunset.

The time was 3:05 on a Monday afternoon in the autumn of June and for Mr Kareem, that time of the day was the peak period. Yet with no assistance from anyone, he said he had to get the job done amidst excruciating back pains.

“There is nobody to assist me with anything,” the dark-skinned vulcaniser quipped, wiping away beads of sweat dripping down from the middle of his bare head. “No apprentice here, nothing. Young ones nowadays only want quick money, they don’t want to work for the money.”

Two decades ago when Mr Kareem served as an apprentice in a quiet village in Abeokuta, some 108 kilometres from his Atan workshop in Ogun State, he explained that his late boss barely did any major work at the workshop.

“All our boss did in those days was to come around in the afternoon, give a directive to us, eat, and go home,” he said in Yoruba.

“Except on special days, our boss did not have to do much, anyway. We had more than 13 young boys working as apprentices. So he had more than enough hands to work for an learn from him. All that has changed now. As you can see, there is nobody here. I carry my cross alone.”

Mr Kareem’s experience is similar to that of Ope Ajayi, an engineer who specialises in wheel balancing and alignment at Ogba Aguda area of Lagos. Mr Ajayi blamed the “get-rich-quick” thinking among young Nigerians for the dearth of apprentices in artisans’ workshops.

“Yahoo-yahoo (internet scam) and other illicit means of making quick money are reasons why young ones are running away from artisan work,” he said. “In our days, nobody gave us money as apprentices yet we stayed and learnt the job. Today, we give them money—some small cash to buy stuff after work—-yet they still run away from work.”

Messrs Kareem and Ajayi’s views summarise the position of numerous other artisans who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES. They all complained of the dearth of young apprentices and lack of institutional support even as numerous Nigerians roam the streets without jobs.

Nigeria slipped into a technical recession in the second quarter of 2016 and maintained negative growths in all quarters of that year. By the second quarter of 2017, the nation exited recession after oil prices improved and relative peace was restored in the restive Niger Delta region. Partly due to the economic recession, the nation’s unemployment figures shot up.

In December 2018, Nigeria’s unemployment rate increased from 18.8 per cent in the third quarter of 2017 to 23.1 per cent in the third quarter of 2018, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). The NBS said that of the 9.7 million unemployed that did absolutely nothing as at the third quarter of 2018, 90.1 per cent of them or 8.77 million were first-time job seekers and had never worked before.

High unemployment rate; dearth of skilled workers

In part, Mr Kareem attributed the high rate of unemployment to “laziness” on the part of young unemployed Nigerians. His position was supported by Jamiu Saheed, another middle-aged bricklayer, who lamented the challenge posed by the dearth of skilled artisans in the construction sector.

“The young ones don’t want to do ‘hardwork’ at building sites any longer,” Mr Saheed bellowed, head bowed gently. “All they want is cheap money. You can see that in how they have run away from construction works.”

But an apprentice who identified himself simply as Qadri told PREMIUM TIMES that some older artisans frustrate the young apprentices out of the system with harsh words and corporal punishment, citing the example of how he was maltreated by his former boss in Ikorodu area of Lagos.

Muhammed Muhammed, a mechanic apprentice in Ikeja, however, dismissed the claim, saying it was based on flawed generalisation. Muhammed, a 17-year-old boy of Shuwa Arab descent, said the culture of maltreating apprentices has since disappeared among indigenous artisans.

Two apprentices at a tailoring workshop in Oluyole Estate, Ibadan, Oyo state, confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES that the culture of inhuman treatment of apprentices among artisans has since reduced.

This newspaper observed that the development has, however, done little to make young people embrace apprenticeship nor has it addressed the challenge posed by the dearth of artisans in the Nigerian economy.

In 2016, the chairman of First Bank Plc, Ibukun Awosika, said a lot of the jobs being created in Nigeria’s construction industry were being taken up by foreigners due to the dearth of indigenous skilled workers. The sector, due to housing deficit, is considered one of the most active in the economy but workers in the sector are largely from the west coast of Africa, especially Benin Republic and Togo.

Earlier in 2014, the former National President of the Nigerian Institute of Building (NIOB), Tunde Lasabi, had claimed that Nigeria lost over N9 billion annually to artisans and craftsmen from neighbouring countries working for companies in the country. Mr Lisabi attributed the development to absence of required skills and technical expertise.

To address the concern, stakeholders and governments at all levels designed policies to train indigenous artisans. In 2016, the Lagos chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Building (NIOB) held a conference to address the dearth of artisans. Similarly, in 2018, the Council of Registered Builders of Nigeria (CORBON) in collaboration with N-Power said it trained 16,800 artisans nationwide under the Federal Government Artisans Empowerment Programme to boost the sector.

In May 2018, the Dangote Group announced that it would spend about N30 billion in the next five years to train 500,000 artisans in the construction industry. The move according to the Chief Executive Officer of Dangote Group, Aliko Dangote, was designed to solve the skills challenge in the country as well as create jobs.

Artisans as Okada, ‘Keke Marwa’ riders

Yet as more artisans are trained under different programmes by stakeholders across various sectors of the economy, little has been done to create an enabling socio-economic environment for them to thrive after such training. Many have had to abandon the vocation to survive as tricycle (Keke Marwa) and motorcycle (Okada) riders after such training.

“We barely have anything to fall back on after most of the SME and artisanship training,” said John Chidi, an Okada rider in Agege area of Lagos.

Mr Chidi was a beneficiary of a skill acquisition programme organised by a lawmaker in Lagos in 2015. He added that many of his colleagues who learnt barbing, shoemaking and upholstery works resorted to riding tricycle and Okada due to the absence of structure, funding and necessary equipment.

Other Okada riders who went through similar training spoke with PREMIUM TIMES in Agege, confirming Mr Chidi’s position.

For others who trained in the traditional apprenticeship programme and practiced for years, lack of patronage and absence of support account for why they abandoned artisanship for Keke and Okada ‘business’. A Keke rider, Lekan Johnson, said he shut down his carpentry workshop in Agege last December when he could barely survive and cater for his family.

“In my carpentry shop, I struggle to make N2,000 in some days,” noted the man who explained that he ran the workshop for six years. “On the occassions when we do not have patronage, you may not realise anything in a week. But as Keke rider, one is guaranteed of going home with at least N2,000 after paying the necessary charges and returns daily.”

His friend, a young carpenter who declined to have his name in print, also gave a similar narrative, blaming lack of institutional support mechanism for their ordeals.

‘Imu-Ahia’ as beacon of hope

In the midst of the uncertainty and its effect on the development of SMEs in the country, the Igbo apprenticeship system appears to represent a beacon of hope, according to Emeka Igwe, a tailor and curtain trader based in Ota, Ogun State.

Mr Igwe explained that the apprenticeship system, otherwise known as ‘Imu-Ahia’, is designed in a way that the apprentice joins an established business person, otherwise known as the “master”, often in commercially vibrant cities.

Sometimes, the “master” may be a close relative with whom he would work for a number of years, he said.

At the end of the apprenticeship, the often younger apprentice is rewarded with a take-off fund with which he could set up his own business and fix other family concerns. Of course, he is also expected to train younger apprentices and the cycle goes on and on.

Mr Igwe recalled that the model is one of the major things identified as factors that pulled many Igbo families out of poverty after the civil war.

“Many of our people have excelled in this sytem despite their limited education,” he said. “Although there are challenges, especially in the area of government support, the system has created so many successful people in the east.”

A young apprentice who works with Mr Igwe, Chukwudi, confirmed this position, adding that he looked up to his year of graduation and independence.

But because the ‘Imu-Ahia’ tradition is confined largely to people of the south-east region, he said, graduate unemployment across the country still remains a source of concern.

Graduate, Student Artisans Emerge

Amidst the high rate of unemployment and under-employment in the country, PREMIUM TIMES findings showed that students, corps members and young graduates have since embraced artisanship for survival.

Sodiq Lukan, a 17-year-old student of Best Tower International University in Cotonou, Republic of Benin, told PREMIUM TIMES that the fear of unemployment drove him to become an artisan in a mechanic workshop in Agidingbi area of Ikeja, Lagos. Sodiq, who is studying mass communication, explained that whenever he is on holiday in Lagos, he goes to the workshop to learn the craft.

“If I do not become a journalist, this is my second option,” he said amidst laughter.

Kehinde Wuraola on her part does not consider hair styling a second option. She disclosed to PREMIUM TIMES that her academic pursuit notwithstanding, her biggest ambition is to establish a big hair styling workshop upon graduation. The 23-year-old is now in her second year at the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro, studying banking and finance. “My biggest dream is to be an employer of labour after school, not to go about looking for a job,” she said rather confidently. “I plan to own my own hair styling shop and train other young ones.”

The period after the compulsory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) year remains the scariest moment for many Nigerian graduates, according to Fadeyi Mujeedat. But for the 2016 graduate of the University of Lagos, the reverse has been the case since she completed NYSC in 2018.

She told PREMIUM TIMES that the fear of post-NYSC life has disappeared since she started learning catering and baking. While her colleagues roam the street in search of jobs, she mastered the art of catering, a vocation she began while in school. She now gets her own contracts from random clients, she said, adding that the business fetches her good money while she proceeds with a master’s degree programme at the University of Lagos.

She added, however, that graduate unemployment is real, based on experiences of colleagues and friends, urging the government to provide relevant institutional support for SMEs. She also urged young undergraduate students of higher institutions and corps members to embrace artisanship.

In his intervention, Auwal Musa, Executive Director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), said the collapse of artisanship has not only worsened the unemployment situation, but it has also killed the dreams of many young people with creative skills. He argued that since people in government have no interest in developing manpower, the SME sector has been allowed to collapse and millions who could have used their skills in artisanship are wasting away.

He said: “In the past, we had vocational centres where skills of people are actually developed to the level that they can be productive to the society. Now, because of the collapse of governance and because there are no interested officials at the local, state and federal levels, they killed the initiative.

“This could have reduced the pressure of unemployment in the country if young people are engaged in artisanal work. We are wasting talents,” he lamented.

Mr Musa recalled that the military governments created the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) to cater for informal employments and local industry. But according to him, poor governance and lack of concern for creativity and manpower development led to the abandonement of the initiative. He urged the government to revisit such policies and come up with new ones to address the challenge of unemployment.


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