In a modest neighbourhood near the border of Ogun and Lagos states, there was a Swiss army knife of a shop where you could buy anything. On rows and rows of shelves in the belly of the supermarket, you would find travel satchels, children’s toys, kitchenware, toiletry, shoes, everything.
Although it wasn’t a grand setup like many other stores around the city, everybody in Magodo — the neighbourhood in question — knew this shop. It was a bus stop, a landmark, a local utility. This shop was called De Prince Supermarket. These days, however, that De Prince supermarket is no longer what it used to be.
It is now much bigger — as big as a block of six flats. Eight years and two recessions later, DePrince has exploded out of that simple room. It has relocated a couple of houses down the street into a two-floor property that it owns. There is a parking lot to the left and the doors to the building are guarded by private security. To its neighbours, De Prince is still, perhaps now more than ever, a community asset. For them, if you needed anything, De Prince is the place to be.
A-ha. “The place to be.” In Ibo, there’s a parallel expression for that phrase. Ebe Ano. To residents of Lekki, the picture of a Nigerian-owned one-stop superstore isn’t unfamiliar. And, you guessed it, it is called Ebeano Supermarket.
Just like De Prince in mainland Lagos, Ebeano has an inventory that includes everything from hairclips to vacuum cleaners. Ebeano and De Prince are so similar that you might mistake one for the other — their ambience, their extensive range of goods, their pricing, their staggering growth, there’s just something there that makes you feel, wait, is this déjà vu? And if you do assume a connection, you will be correct. The founders of both stores are not only family, one of them led the other into the Nigerian market.
Sunday Egede, 51, set up his first shop in 1991 in Isolo, near the buzzy Oshodi market and the state capital, Ikeja.
“Through a dint of hard work, innovativeness and financial discipline with total dependence on God,” a story about him says, “the shop grew and he was able to establish De Prince Supermarket Gbagada as well as De Prince Supermarket Magodo.”
While building his business, however, he also trained David Ojei, his younger-by-two-years nephew.
Ojei, the nephew, is the founder of Ebeano Supermarkets.
Before his three-month apprenticeship with his uncle, Ojei, upon graduating from the University of Nigeria with a bachelor’s in Accountancy, had struggled. For months, he’d written aptitude tests at Zenith Bank, GTBank and FBN Merchant Bankers. He failed them all. Afterwards, he settled for a private security job, started a barbershop, and attempted to sell ogbono (irvingia) seeds. He tried everything but, his degree in finance notwithstanding, nothing took.
Finally, a 90-day of apprenticeship at De Prince would change his life forever. Eight years after his training, Oje owned how own string of retail outlets, including the famous Ebeano Supermarket at Ikota, Lekki. In 2009, he completed a full 360o when he formed a 50-50 partnership with his uncle to launch the Prince Ebeano chain of stores. Today there are five breanches of Prince Ebeano. Their tagline? “The Preferred One Stop Retail Store”.
Mr Egede says his nephew isn’t the only businessman he has trained. The proprietors of Blenco Supermarket, Blossom Supermarket, Danny’s Supermarket, Chapter one Supermarket are all in business, he says, thanks to him. And it makes sense he would share his knowledge with all these people, as he himself wouldn’t have started at all were it not for his own brother who’d shown him the ropes.
Egede hadn’t only learnt from that brother, he’d also received his first funding from the man, in the classic imu-ahiaapprenticeship system that’s common among the Ibos.
Imu-ahia is an old — almost a century old — business training programme that has raised thousands of successful Nigerian merchants. As callow trainees, these traders were led by the hand into the hallowed chambers of free enterprise. They spent three to seven years learning the practice of product sourcing, warehousing, transportation, pricing, financial management, sales promotion, et cetera.
“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,” a researcher for Accion recently found. Among the traders interviewed for the Accion report was a computer and accessories vendor who had received N800,000 from his master after five years of imu-ahia.
Success in the candidate’s chosen niche may not be automatic but the hands-on experience gained under a shifu who guides the student in the practical study of business could determine if a new enterprise would even take off at all.
Ojei and Egede suggest that imu-ahia is complementary to formal, standardised schooling.
Speaking to Bank & Entrepreneur magazine in 2016, Egede said his son, an undergraduate at the time, worked at the supermarket during the holidays. “He is treated like any other [member of] staff, starting out as an attendant in the cosmetics section, and now working as a cashier,” he said.
The effectiveness of imu-ahia continues to attract many researchers and companies who wish to deploy it, or some versions of it, in the fight against the devastating youth unemployment in the country. One of such firms is Apprentice9ja, which hopes to “[Help] disadvantaged and marginalised young people up-skill and find employment.”
But imu ahia extends beyond technical skills and job hunting. It is an ecosystem that includes accomplished entrepreneurs willing to share their secrets and patient mentees who may or may not be quick studies like David Ojei. When the system works, as it most often does, it sets up a flourishing revenue stream. And, in some outstanding cases, it gives birth to a vast entity like Prince Ebeano Supermarket.
This article was first published in The Guardian of October 31, 2020.