The Igbo culture, often celebrated as Nigeria’s most commercially driven tribe, takes center stage in a captivating virtual exhibition titled “Uwa Bu Ahia.” The exhibition unveils the fascinating history of Igbo commerce, shedding light on how markets have been the epicenter of community, business, and social interaction in Igbo land.
The exhibition was curated by 16-year-old Soluna Ajene, a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire.
Marketplace as a way of life
For the Igbo community, life unfolds within the bustling marketplace. The market is more than just a place to conduct business; it is the epicenter of community life, serving as the hub for social interactions, cultural exchanges, and economic endeavors.
With a population of around 40 million people, the Igbo community has a significant presence not only in the Southeastern region of Nigeria but also in various other parts of the nation. Their entrepreneurial spirit and common language play a pivotal role in commercial transactions, tracing back to their involvement in trade during the 15th-century slave trade.
Unlike many other African communities, Igbo slaves were exposed to entrepreneurship before and also by their owners, which set the stage for their enterprising nature. Before the Civil War, over 90 percent of Igbos in towns were traders. Today, their enterprising spirit has propelled them to build wealth and influence through various entrepreneurial ventures.
“Igbo commerce and life revolves around the marketplace the world or the market is the epicenter of community, business, and all social interaction in Igbo land,” Solu Ajene. “We are yet to come across another culture for which the market holds such a fascinating centrality in the world view once again speaking to the prominence of the Igbo market.”
Origin, timeline into the Igbo economic life
The earliest insights into Igbo economic life emerged from excavations in Igbo-Ukwu. These discoveries, including textiles, salt, beads, and metalwork, suggest a thriving local and regional market during the Igbo-Ukwu era, with significant connections beyond the region.
Although, before the 1800s, Igbo commerce thrived in the trade of salt, beads, metal products, and more. The Aboh people excelled in exporting beads as early as the 1500s, while Awka blacksmiths contributed to the production of bronze bells, iron, and brass bars.
However, the 1800s, i.e. early 19th century ushered in the slave trade and palm oil commerce. European demand for palm oil led to the British establishing trading posts in Igbo areas, further boosting trade and economic growth. In the 1900s, trade activities shifted to various trading states, with the River Niger serving as a crucial commercial route.
The Aro people played a significant role in importing European goods and exporting local products, thanks to their expertise in trade and commerce. Their oracle system ensured the interests of both traders and buyers.
Also, Igbo women played a significant role in local trade, overseeing their spheres of commerce. They were instrumental in organizing local trade and maintaining gender balance and equality.
One other unique aspect is the periodic markets (Eke, Orie, Afor, and Nkwo). They are more than just hubs for commerce. They are also serving as centers for social, political, and religious interactions. These markets were deeply intertwined with Igbo culture and history.
Today, the Igbo people continue to excel in trade and commerce, with some of Nigeria’s largest markets located in Igbo land, including the Onitsha Main Market, Ariara International Market Aba, and Nnewi Main Market.
The apprenticeship system: A unique business incubator
The Igbo culture’s apprenticeship system, consisting of “Imu-Olu Aka” (learning a craft or skills) and “Imu-Ahia” (learning to trade), stands as a beacon of entrepreneurship development.
Families entrust their children to established businessmen for apprenticeship training, fostering a trans-generational legacy of entrepreneurship. Robert Neuwirth, a renowned author has aptly described the Igbo apprenticeship system as “the largest business incubator platform in the world.”
The Igbo Apprenticeship System isn’t just a business practice. The Igbo culture’s rich commercial history lives on through the trans-generational Igbo business community. It not only dominates commercial activities but also serves as a means of preserving Igbo heritage; identity, language, and cultural values.
Explore the dynamic history of Igbo commerce in the “Uwa Bu Ahia” virtual exhibition, where the past meets the present, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the Igbo people continues to thrive. Click this link to watch the full exhibition video.
“Uwa Bu Ahia” is a virtual exhibition that unveils the fascinating commercial history of the Igbo culture, showcasing the central role of commerce, entrepreneurship, and marketplaces in Igbo life. The exhibition provides a unique educational experience, exploring the rich traditions and economic achievements of the Igbo people throughout history.