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Entrepreneurship and the Igbo

Randi Craigen - Thursday, May 11, 2017

By Peace Udechukwu and Randi Craigen

It is an historical fact that the majority of African Americans descended from the people in the Western part of Africa, though it's not particularly taught in schools from what possible tribes. Through my personal research, however, I've discovered that the Igbo (pronounced E'-boo) people were a common ethnic group found amongst enslaved Africans in the United States. This is interesting as it relates to historical characteristics of the Igbo people, the topic of business and entrepreneurship, and the characteristics of many African Americans today. I believe entrepreneurship is "in their genes."

A true entrepreneur is a person who is able to generate income for themselves through some sort of service or invention. The very culture of West African people is driven by the notion of entrepreneurship to support their families, but the Igbos are known to be some of Africa's most energetic and entrepreneurial people. In fact, they are known as "hustlers," a term that has also been associated with African American men—often called street hustlers—who are in essence just trying to produce a living for themselves and their families. The term is often viewed negatively in American society, but I'd like to give it an unbiased definition. A hustler is an aggressively enterprising person—a go-getter. In fact, a hustler is someone who knows how to make money by several different means. There truly should be no shame in hustling done the right way.

Olanreqaju Akinpelu Olutayo, in his paper, "The Igbo Entrereneur in the Political Economy of Nigeria," wrote that "the Igbo, when compared to other major ethnic groups in Nigeria, are in the forefront of entrepreneurial activities, especially in the informal sector."1 He also states that "one major and unique trait of the Igbo entrepreneur is the courage, perseverance and determination with which they carry on in spite of … bad experiences and losses."2 The latter statement refers to the perseverance of the Igbos to reestablish themselves after the Biafra war in Nigeria. While there was much about the slave trade, colonialism and the migration of the Igbo due to land hunger that had an impact on their entrepreneurial development—it wasn't just a result of their ethnicity—their ability to generate and maintain a communal civic spirit was also key to their entrepreneurial success. Olutayo noted "their communal spirit is the life-blood of the entrepreneurial ability of the Igbos."3

Currently, Nigeria is the world's largest producer of shea nuts. The country is literally situated on a shea butter goldmine. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Shea Origin Nigeria project, Mrs. Mobola Sagoe, is a budding entrepreneur committed to building a sustainable shea industry, which is why she implemented a pilot project to help women gather the shea nuts and process them into butter. She has since taken over the shea processing centre in Saki, Oyo State to train villagers, mostly women, on how to pick and process shea nuts and make a living from them, in order to lift them and their families out of extreme poverty. Sagoe intends to ensure that companies source products directly from producers in the villages, where villagers are involved through manually collecting, sorting, crushing, roasting, grinding, and separating the oils from the butter and shaping the finished product. The raw nuts collected from them are processed into unrefined shea butter. The villages also make money by selling the raw nuts to companies that extract, refine and export the oil abroad for cosmetic purposes.4

StartingUp Now had the privilege of participating in a Shea Butter Conference with industry leaders from Nigeria and helping them with the development of their business plans.

With the expanding opportunities in the shea butter industry, the growth of the shea nut production throughout Nigeria, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, Nigeria is in a position to improve its economy and, according to the Director General of Niger State Commodity and Export Promotion Agency, Mohammed Kontagora, “Shea butter has the potential to eradicate poverty."5

The same trait of courage, perseverance and determination of the Igbo people is often highlighted regarding many African Americans due to their resiliency seen over the years despite the suffering that has occurred due to slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of racism and oppression. Despite bad experience and losses, like their Igbo ancestors, they carry on. In working together, generating and maintaining a "communal civic spirit," African Americans can also increase their entrepreneurial success.

Over the years, I have observed many similarities between the Igbo people and African Americans. I encourage my African American brothers and sisters to explore their ancestry and if you discover you are Igbo, embrace your natural gift in entrepreneurship.


1 "The Igbo Entrepreneur in the Political Economy of Nigeria," p. 150, Olanrewaju Akinpelu OLUTAYO, Department of Sociology, Faculty of the Social Sciences, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, NIGERIA. 

2 Ibid, p. 169. 

3 Ibid.

4 "Making Nigeria a Global Player in $10B Shea Industry," Posted By: CHIKODI OKEREOCHA and DAN ESSIET, The Nation, 

5 Ibid.

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