Showmax’s Freemen highlights the origin story of Nnewi’s most successful businessmen

4 April 2024

Showmax’s Freemen highlights the origin story of Nnewi’s most successful businessmen

At age seven, young Dr Cosmas Maduka arrived in Lagos from Nnewi as an apprentice to his uncle, having lost his father three years prior. After struggling to raise two young sons alone, his mother finally decided Cosmas would be better off learning a trade in Lagos, under her brother. The founder, president and chairman of Coscharis Group would endure many trials in his years of apprenticeship, as highlighted in the Showmax Original Freemen

“I slept in a passage with my uncle for a short time and then I started sleeping in the shop. He would stay till about 7 or 8 pm and ask me to go inside, then he would lock the door. There’s no bathroom, there’s no toilet, there’s no window,” Maduka shared while recounting his early days as a young apprentice on Freemen.  

For fellow Nnewi indigene Dr Alex Chika Okafor, OON, chairman and founder of the Chicason Group, the story wasn’t much different. The son of a fish seller, young Alex also served as an apprentice to his uncle, which also came with its fair share of trials. 

“Once you come for apprenticeship, you have to wake up at 4:30 am – fetch water, prepare food, then set for your master, eat your own, then rush to the market. Before 7 am you’re already in the market,” Okafor reminisced. 

Today, Wikipedia puts Maduka’s Coscharis Group net worth at about $500 million, while Okafor’s net worth is estimated at about $400 million.  

What is it about Nnewi that breeds such successful businessmen? 

Famously nicknamed the Japan of Africa, owing to its emergence as the hub of automobile spare parts dealers, Nnewi is the ancestral home of Maduka and Okafor, among several other business moguls. The small South-East Nigerian town was also touted in a 2017 Forbes Africa article as having “bred more naira billionaires than any other town in Nigeria, and possibly Africa”. 

So, what is it about this small town and its culture that have contributed to shaping and producing some of Nigeria’s most successful businessmen? The top guns of Nnewi are unanimous in their submission – the Igbo Apprenticeship System aka Igba Boi. 

“When you study the Igbo Apprenticeship System, it’s all-encompassing. It doesn’t only teach you about trade, it teaches you about life, especially if you’re opportune or lucky to have a good master, because that is how you’ll see how the family is run. You learn hands on how things are done – it’s not theory, you see it day-to-day,” says Dikanna Okafor, son of Dr Okafor and deputy group MD of the Chicason Group. 

Also speaking on the Igbo Apprenticeship System, creative entrepreneur and DG National Council for Arts & Culture, Obi Asika, says: 

“One of the things they [the apprentices] learn is how to fail and keep going. Anybody who is an entrepreneur knows if you don’t fail, you can’t win. You must have tried something that didn’t work, you try again and when you land on something that does work, you stay consistent and execute.” 

Could a competitive spirit be the crucial ingredient to Nnewi businessmen’s success? 

With hard work and dedication at the core of the average Nnewi businessman’s ethics, many believe competition is the secret sauce that spurs the Nnewi and larger Igbo businessman on. This sentiment is echoed by Prof Ndubisi Ekekwe, engineer/author at the Tekedia Institute. 

“I always tell people, it’s going to be nearly impossible for any person to compete with some of these guys from the South-Eastern part of Nigeria because they don’t just want to make money, they’re competing because that is a way of life.” 

Watch the full season of Freemen on Showmax now.